I finished winter quarter at my college recently, and I relaxed over the weekend, during which I read a vampire book I picked up: The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I fraking love Pan's Labyrinth, and I had high-expectations for this book. While I did enjoy it for the most part, I found it a bit of a let-down. This is primarily due to the vampires not really seeming like vampires, the characters not being very well developed, and the action taking place in discrete segments more than there just being a fluid novel. I got the distinct impression that the book was created for the intention of there being a movie made about it.
The main aspect of the Strain vampires is that they are the embodiment of disease. This is a pretty common trend in vampire fiction, vampirism often treated like an STD or rabies. Strain heavily emphasizes this aspect of the vampire mythology, to the point that the central protagonist (Ephraim) is a scientist with the CDC, and the first part of Strain is about approaching the first evidence of vampirism like it's biological terrorism. This was pretty entertaining, and I found it reminiscent of Michael Crichton. As it turns out, there is a "strain" that is the root of vampirism, and there are also parasitic worms (shades of Slither) that transform the body into the vampire form.
A problematic part of Strain vampirism, though, is that in being the embodiment of disease, they are too much like zombies. The authors don't shy away from this comparison. Zombies are frequently brought up. The thing is, zombies aren't vampires. By making these Strain undead into zombies, it's making them less recognizable as vampires. They don't even bite to drink blood; they have six-foot-long stinger-tipped tentacles under their tongues. I think of them as more like The Flood from Halo than Dracula, save for the Master.
Strain vampires come in three categories: Ancients, drones turned while alive, and drones turned after death. The Ancients are seven powerful, sapient vampires that have divided up the world for themselves, but have exiled one (the Master). After gorging himself on Holocaust victims, the Master gets greedy and decides to wage war with the other Ancients by wiping out the human population. In a Dracula-like move, he travels to New York in an airplane, killing all but four of the humans onboard but siring all of them. The four survivors eventually endure a traumatic transformation into mindless drones, and all the drones go out to sire more vampires like a plague.
I dislike the fact that only the Master has his mind, while all the other vampires--save for Ancients we only see a tiny amount--are entirely instinct driven. The four survivors keep their minds for a bit and become extremely aggressive versions of their former selves, but eventually the strain takes over and they become animals. I also dislike that the four survivors are the only vampires that look like the traditional-looking vampire on the cover: a pale face with golden irises. The Master is black like a leech, while all the other drones are red with red sclera in their eyes. Once the four turn, there's nothing really more to their characters and might as well be any other drone. Really, the Master is the only villain with lasting personality, but he's not that interesting. He's just your typical super powerful bad guy who sees humans as nothing more than bottles on the shelf. I'm also getting a little tired of villains simply known as "the Master".
The characters aren't very well painted. The main rule of writing is "show, don't tell", but these writers seem to have not gotten the message. The story has a ton of characters introduced with long descriptions of who they are more than the authors actually illustrating their characters through their actions. A little exposition is fine, but not a ton of exposition followed by very little demonstration of what the characters are. Besides that, the characters are very flat. Eph's the divorced husband who cares about his family and his wife Kelly is wrong to have left him for a man (Matt) who turns out to be a total jerk, and their son Zack is intelligent but then just drops out of the story until the very end. The only character I find interesting is the vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, but that might just be because he's in it a lot and some of his past is left mysterious.
There's this part about rat extermination that seems to come out of nowhere. The vampires scare the rats out of their usual nesting area, so a trained exterminator is able to track down the Master's hideout. It makes sense, but the exterminator character is introduced late in the story and there's this extended portion talking about rats. I'm sure the research the authors did on rats must have been fascinating to them (they recommend a rat book at the end), but it's really unnecessary to include in the story.
In reading this novel, I get the impression that the authors wrote it with the intention that it would be made into a movie. Discovering Guillermo del Toro's YouTube channel with Strain "book trailers" pretty much confirms this. There are many scenes in the book that have scary moments but don't really build up the characters or add to the story. They pretty much exist to present creepy imagery that would make a darn good horror film, but not really a good novel.
There's also this weird thing with everyone being terrified of a solar eclipse. Apparently, humans are just programmed to be terrified of unnatural darkness. Even an astronaut on the International Space Station gets the creeps looking out at the shadow cast on Earth. Maybe in the middle ages people would be universally terrified, but it seems pretty weird for 2010. The eclipse isn't even connected to the vampires so much as being a bad omen. I guess it would make good atmosphere in the movie.
From a feminist standpoint, this book is pretty problematic. The character Nora is fairly effectual as a CDC person, and she does help with the vampire hunting, but she is written out toward the end. Kelly is just the ex-wife who Eph still cares for, and the Master turns her as a taunt to him. One of the four survivors is a lawyer named Joan who is rich and to be despised for no apparent reason beyond the fact she's rich. (This is an instance of a trend I've noticed in fiction of what I dub "lazy Marxism", where anything capitalist-related is evil for no apparent reason and there's nothing intellectual about the subject matter.) Joan uses her lawyer abilities to break quarantine, claiming civil rights, but her motivation seems to be simple pleasure from sadistically subverting the system, and she is responsible for letting the plague out. So, yeah.
And then there's this thing with Gabriel Bolivar, another one of the four survivors. He's a Gothic musician who's sexually promiscuous and has a lot of female admirers. While the way he looks down on women isn't good, I dislike the way the narrative seems to punish him for his promiscuity by the strain taking his sexuality away. He first loses interest in sex, and then his genitals rot away. That's pushing it, I think. There's also a bit where, when the strain makes him light-headed, he wonders if one of the women drugged him again so she could have her way with him. Um, they do realize that's rape, right?
For all I put the story down here, I don't hate it. It is a fun read with some genuinely creepy parts. Though the book seems more like a movie proposal, there are some cool visual moments like when Bolivar washes off his vampire makeup only to find his face looks the same underneath. It's kind of nice to have a Jewish vampire hunter, considering how often the Christian cross is the symbol of defying vampires, and he is pretty cool. The story is pretty engaging, but then the ending seems like a major let-down. The Master runs away to turn and fight another day, a reasonably interesting character--a Latino thief named Gus--vanishes for most of the book only to be captured by the Ancients, too many storylines are left unresolved, too many characters didn't get more rounded, and when you really think about it the vampires don't really seem like vampires. In the end, I'd tentatively recommend it just as a shallow thriller without much substance.
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