Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Paging Doctor Acula

The Strain
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Vampires. Everyone loves a good vampire story.1 And I had high hopes for this one. I thoroughly enjoy Guillermo del Toro’s films, such as Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, and the book itself starts out with a great hook: A jumbo jet touches down at JFK airport, then stops completely dead on the runway. And I mean dead... electronics, crew, passengers, everything. But, unfortunately, a good screenwriter and a quality opening will only get you so far...

We know The Strain is about vampires. It says so on the book jacket. Yet the authors still feel the need to build toward this discovery — that vampires are at the root of all the trouble — for well over a hundred pages, which amounts to the first third of the book. And how do they build this suspense? With repetitive storytelling and horribly unsubtle metaphor.

Here’s a tip: If you’re going to stick a bunch of characters into similar situations (for example, finding a relative or neighbor acting peculiarly, who happens to be a newly turned vampire), you need each character to react differently, and provide noticeably divergent outcomes. When the names change but the story remains practically the same,2 it’s a waste of the reader’s time. Also, should you choose to introduce an event as ominous as a solar eclipse, it’ll pretty much speak for itself. There is absolutely no need to, for instance, have a half-dozen different characters try to stymy their impulse to run and hide, or remark that the eclipse is “what the beginning of the end of the world will look like.”

Along with their ability to come up with some fantastically un-analogous analogies,3 del Toro and Hogan also fall into the habit of using a little writer’s trick I like to call “damn laziness.” Say they want to get a certain concept across to the reader, such as that the comatose man isn’t so much dying as he’s undergoing a metamorphosis. Well, they just have some character suddenly realize it, whether or not they have the information to jump to that conclusion. In fact, some of the revelations don’t even have anything to do with anything else in the entire book:
He brought the half-empty bottle away from his lips with the realization that he had just slaked his thirst with the product of another mammal.4
Sure, the writing is bad, but it doesn’t deserve all the credit. The story has its faults, too. [Warning: Thar be spoilers ahead.] This is the first book of a trilogy, so some questions are purposely left unanswered. But others deserve to be answered here, in this first book. For instance, we learn that the Master caused the death of the plane and its passengers – none of whom tried to fight back, by the way – in under two minutes’ time. What we never find out is how he did this; apparently the fact that he is a vampire is explanation enough. Also, the Master makes sure to save his favorite minion as he flees one encounter, yet that secondary character does not show up again in the penultimate scene, or anywhere else for that matter. A rapid-firing nail gun fitted with silver nails is mentioned multiple times and coveted by one character, then is tossed aside after one use in favor of a UV lamp. That’s right: a lamp. And then, in the climactic scene, as the all-powerful Master is inexplicably held against a wall with this same UV lamp, rather than slay him then and there and perhaps save all of mankind, the idiot with the blade goes back to save a fallen cohort instead, by administering his heart medication. And why? So the Master can escape and there can be a sequel. Frankly, that’s the only explanation.

Then there are the creatures themselves. The vampires are not at all glorified; they are ugly, decrepit beings who stink of death. And I’m fine with that. Vampirism, in this case, is spread not by swapping blood with a vampire, but via strange worm-like entities in the blood that can be seen with the naked eye. I’m fine with that, too. Also, the vampires don’t have fangs. Instead, they suck blood using a bizarre extendable stinger that shoots out when they unhinge their lower jaw and makes a tiny incision in the victim’s neck. All of this I can abide. After all, if vampires were the same in every story, they’d no longer be as interesting. But then del Toro and Hogan went and made the one misstep that is completely unconscionable when it comes to vampires. Newly-turned vampires, which populate the majority of this book, stumble around in packs and think collectively. That’s right: basically, their vampires are just zombies who prefer blood to brains. What a gyp!

Maybe in the second book they become werewolves. I don’t know.

I’d have rated this book even lower, except that I wasn’t so much annoyed by the inconsistencies and the haphazard writing as I was entertained. It reminded me of Snakes on a Plane, which was so bad it was almost good. Of course, the difference here is that with The Strain, they were actually trying to make it good.

The moral of the story? The authors shouldn’t quit their day jobs. Del Toro should return to writing and directing major motion pictures. And Hogan should go back to writing crime novels like his Prince of Thieves (a.k.a. The Town).

Anyway, if you’re looking for a quality read and some fangy goodness, pass on this horrible mess and open up something by Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. Or, better yet, read Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends (A Love Story). You’ll be glad you did.


1 No, not Twilight. I said a good vampire story. Pay attention, will you?
2 Like the first season of Smallville. And every single episode of Scooby Doo.
3 Though you may not be altogether disturbed by the vampires in this book, whenever you come across an “apparently” or an “as though,” if you read the rest of the sentence, you do so at your own peril.
4 This is perhaps my favorite line in the book. As you may have deduced, one of the main characters has just had a sip of milk. What you couldn’t know is that he’s also right in the middle of introducing the director of the CDC to the world’s foremost expert on vampiric lore. Just had to get that milky pearl of wisdom off his chest, I guess.

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