Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reinventing the Vampire Myth: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain Trilogy

Pan's Labyrinth is a favourite film of mine from the last ten years. Director Guillermo del Toro crafted an adult fairy tale set in Spain near the end of World War II, which brought together realistic elements of the battle between the still-fighting Republicans and now-in-charge Fascists, and combined it with the fantasy world created by a lonely young girl who is brought to a Fascist stronghold by her mother. The mother has married the violent Captain in charge of the garrison and he has insisted they join him in the forest (the mother is pregnant with the Captain's child). To the little girl, the fantasy world is filled with magical creatures that are both good and malevolent (sometimes within the same creature). In this world, she is thought to be a lost princess who must perform various tasks to prove she is who they believe her to be.

Beyond being a wonderful tale that combines real horror (the violence perpetuated on each side in the Spanish battles is pretty brutal) with fantasy, del Toro created creatures that borrowed elements from stories we've heard before and gave them a mighty twist. The twists created a visual world unlike anything we've ever seen on film. He also created a fantasy world for the girl that is far closer to the original Grimm's Fairy Tales than the more sanitized versions that came out later. The fantasy world is no less disturbing and violent than the one in the real world, but here, at least, the young girl's importance is acknowledged where, in the real world, she is viewed as nothing more than a nuisance who is barely tolerated.

In 2009, del Toro, with American novelist Chuck Hogan (best known for the novel Prince of Thieves which became the Ben Affleck film The Town), published the first of a trilogy of novels which rethought the vampire myth. Just as he did Pan's Labyrinth, he also reinvents here the way fairy tales function. He and Hogan envision a vampire not based on an eastern European tale, but rather one that can trace its origins right back to one of God's fallen archangels. In other words, this is simultaneously a reinterpretation of the vampire story and the story of Satan. The first novel, The Strain (2009), tells the story of The Master (the youngest of seven “Ancients” who have lived for an eternity) coming to America through the assistance of a corrupt billionaire. The airplane lands at JFK Airport outside of New York where all passengers are dead or near dead. The Center for Disease Control is contacted and Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of the CDC's rapid response unit, is dispatched with his team to examine and contain the problem.

Guillermo del Toro
As with many novels like this, Goodweather and his team think at first this is some sort of viral outbreak, but then they quickly determine the deeper implications when the “dead” on the airplane come back to life and begin to attack members of his team. Of course, everybody thinks Goodweather and his small band of CDC experts, plus a few others who join them, are crazy. It's only when it is too late does the rest of the world wake up to what they are facing.

The novel, and the following sequels, The Fall (2010) and The Night Eternal (2011), trace Goodweather and his gang as they try, often in vain, to conquer The Master and save humanity. The Strain ends with a temporary defeat of the creature; The Fall is, as the title suggests, about how humanity falls; while The Night Eternal examines both good and bad side of humanity (many humans side with the vamps for purely selfish reasons) and how Goodweather and his band of believers battle this infection. And that is how del Toro and Hogan depict the vampires. They are a virus. The vamps first line of attack are hundreds of white worms that move under their skin. When a vamp is damaged by silver weapons (that and ultra violet light are humanity's main weapons against the vampires), their blood runs white and the worms that come out, if they get on a human's skin, can burrow into flesh and cause an infection that begins the vampiric transformation. The vampires themselves don't come up to you and bite you on the neck and suck your blood. Rather, once transformed, the host bodies change. The organs are replaced and within the throat a stinger forms. The stinger can extend six feet, not unlike a frog's tongue. It is the stinger that drains the humans of their blood. Other changes is that The Master actually takes over a host body. This allows it to move from body to body over the generations as each one begins to break down due to attacks or just the long passage of time.

Chuck Hogan
You can see del Toro all over the way these creatures look, move and interact. There is also a gang of blind children who are transformed into vampires. They become creepy scampering telepathic creatures who are both advance scouts and fierce protectors of The Master and those who surround it (and it's always an “it”, never “he” or “she”). The monsters de Toro creates are as disturbing as the creatures that populated Pan's Labyrinth (and the two Hellboy movies from 2004 and 2008). But that is not all he brings to this tale. One of the themes that del Toro continually examines is lost, ignored or abandoned children (other films he either directed or produced, namely The Devil's Backbone (2001) and The Orphanage (2007), also examine abandoned children). He suggests in these books, unlike his other work, that we ignore or abandon our children at our peril. Two children in this tale seriously rebel against their “parents” with catastrophic consequences. The Master is rebelling against God (his father), while Goodweather's young son, Zack, rebels against Ephraim (Eph and Zack's mother have divorced, and it is established in the first book that he is the type to always let work come before family – a breeding ground for Zack's alienation). In a truly disturbing twist, Zack becomes an acolyte of The Master who fights against his own father. In both cases, the books imply that absentee parents are partially responsible for the darkness these characters embrace. It's an intriguing premise that works well through all three books.

The Master in the also-published graphic novel version
Beyond the creatures and the themes del Toro explores there are some believability problems with the books, especially the second and third volumes. One of the solutions that del Toro and Hogan come up with in order to allow the vamps to walk during daylight is to have worldwide simultaneous nuclear power plant meltdowns. As this happens all over the world, the skies are scorched casting the earth into 22 hours of night and 2 hours of weak sunlight every day. Although it's an ingenious solution that permits the vamps to conquer the world, it creates problems that verge on the impossible. (Yes, I know, vampires are impossible too, but that I don't have a problem with.) Since the vamps need humans around to feed upon, not all humans are killed. In fact, they are allowed, with many restrictions, to survive in the mostly ruined cities. The exceptions are the elderly (they are gotten rid of) and fertile women. They are basically placed into concentration camps where they are expected to churn out child after child. These children will grow up to be a continual supple of “food” for the vamps. (Though I've not seen it, I think this idea was at the heart of the Ethan Hawke film from 2009 called Daybreakers.) The problem is this. If the earth was as scorched as badly as del Toro and Hogan suggest, all life would die. Without sunlight, trees would whither, fruits and vegetables would disappear, animals and humans would starve for lack of food, and a new ice age would quickly envelope the world. The writers blissfully ignore these incongruities, but it's never far from your mind especially as you read the latter books.

The other problems are the characters. None of the humans are particularly well formed. Eph is a cypher who is set up originally as the three books' overarching hero, but because he becomes so wrapped up (repetitiously so) in rescuing his son, he contemplates betraying the humans in order to win his son's freedom from The Master. I don't buy any of this. Sure he loves his son, but it just never plays. It was clearly an attempt to give the character a crisis, but it verges too often on the unbelievable. The rest of the humans are either craven clich├ęs (the main head of the CDC betrays the humans and sides with the vamps) or are blanks in my mind's eye. When I read a well-written novel, whether literary or pulp, I can always create in my mind what the characters look like. In these particular books, I never get a sense of how any of these people appear, and I think that might be because the authors are so wrapped up in describing The Master and the other vampires that they never bother to give us much to work with where the humans are concerned.

And yet, the world they create, and particularly the effort they put into reconfiguring the vampire myths, make these three novels still worth reading. If nothing else, they are never boring. Just don't get too wrapped up in the characters, but rather concentrate instead on the theme del Toro loves to pursue and the creatures he also loves to create.

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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