May 24, 2009

Monkey droppings - The Strain: Were vampires ever scary?

Curl up, boys and girls, and I'll tell you a story of the long ago time.

It was an innocent time. A time when being a monster meant something. A time when a monster could actually scare someone. A time when the possibility of getting the blood sucked from your body was greeted with something akin to revulsion or, even better, horror. A time when vampires ruled the night, and you were forever running home after the sun set for fear of running into a thirsty bloodsucker.

Alas, young'uns, but those times are pretty much gone the way of the dodo and compassionate conservatism. People tend to try and humanize that which they cannot understand, and that's a strong reason as to why the historically scary monster has almost gone the way of the dodo. Even the most famous vampire of them all, the venerable Dracula, had a sense of style about him. He went about his nightly plasma-feasts in a stylish cape, and attended fancy cocktail parties and made chit-chat with comely lasses. But at least Dracula wasn't overly conflicted about his actions. He didn't moan and groan about his natural tendencies. He seduced, then he drained. And if a person was unlucky enough to survive the encounter, that person stood a very good chance of becoming a creature of the night, feeding on the blood of the living, terrified of sunlight and garlic.

Jump ahead a century or so, and the undead nightstalkers have been transformed from black-hearted demons into creatures somehow far worse; emo kids. Blame novelist and recent born-again Anne Rice for this, who began the whole transmogrification of the vampire from beast of legend to mopey teenager with her Lestat series of vampire novels. Yes, Interview with the Vampire was a gothic feast of suppressed longings with hearty dollops of bloodlust, and more importantly, a terrific novel. But as the series went on, and on, and on, it played up the romance and forgot about the horror, with increasingly silly consequences (Memnoch the Devil, anyone?).

Now (and you must have seen this coming at this point in the post), Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight vamps has taken whatever horror was left at the bottom of a nearly empty barrel and chucked it, turning the once-proud vampyre into depressed teenagers who, gosh dang it, just want to fit in and belong. Meyer's creations are not vampires, they're posers (Vamposers? If that term takes off, I want a credit.). They aren't scary, they're soulful. They're not afraid of the sun, they're just a little on the pale side. And they sparkle, like the glittery plasticized My Pretty Ponys that fill the toy chests of young girls. And that's where the vampire is now at: it's an object of adoration for pubescent girls, looking broodily out from the pages of Twilight and Vampire Academy and The House of Night. I'm all for thinking outside the box and trying new things, but the 21st century vampire is a neutered thing, sad and alone, holding his fangs in the palm of his hand and wondering how the hell things got to be so bad.

There have been some attempts made to bring the nastier vampires back out into the sunlight, so to speak; the movie 30 Days of Night - based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles, itself a case of steadily diminishing returns as the series sputters on - for all its faults, certainly tried to make the vampire a creature to be feared rather than pitied. You didn't leave the theatre wishing "If only I could be one of them!" It had copious amounts of gore, moments of real horror, and a lead vampire of utter malevolence. But for the most part, vampires are yesterday's news. Even the movie I am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's stunning novel of the last survivor of a vampire plague, took the insulting step of removing the concept altogether, replacing the sorry vamp with an overly-CGI'd monster that was far more amusing than horrifying.

Is there any hope on the horizon for an undead resurgence? As it stands, even zombies are more popular, and you can't say that they suffer from a surfeit of personality. They're even encroaching on Dracula's Elizabethan upbringings, which must rankle him something fierce.

Well, new steps have been taken to reignite the vampire's career as chief among the fiends. And from the outside, their would appear reason to hope for a triumphant return. Renown Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro is a cinematic fabulist with a dark bent to his more personal efforts. He has proven himself as an able creator of big-budget fantasy/action epics (Hellboy), as well as a vastly talented director of personal visions that effectively mingle the darkest of nightmares with atmosphere and verve (the wonderful Academy Award-winning Pan's Labyrinth, the spectacularly weird Cronos). He's even personally handled the vampire with his Blade II, a sequel which added a new bent to the mythos, although it was far more of an action film than a horror. But look at that punim! You tell me that's not a freaky-deaky monster.

Joining del Toro is Chuck Hogan, a Hammett Award-winning author for his novel Prince of Thieves. Together, the duo have planned a trilogy of vampire horror, a vast epic of horror and dread.

At least, that's the hope. And now arrives The Strain, ground zero for "a horrifying battle between man and vampire that threatens all humanity," if the back cover of the ARC is to be believed. And when you come across such passages as this, a description of one character's experiences at a Nazi concentration camp -
The searing pit. The hungry flames twisting, the greasy smoke lifting away in a kind of hypnotic ballet. And the rhythm of the execution line - gunshot, gun carriage clicking, the soft bouncing tinkle of the bullet casing against the dirt ground - lulled him into a death trance. Staring down into the flames, stripping away flesh and bone, unveiling man for what he is: mere matter. Disposable, crushable, flammable sacks of meat - easily revertible to carbon.
- you get a sense of real old-school horror making its resurgence.

And how I would dearly love for that to be so. The zombie novels of
David Wellington and Brian Keene are all well and good and bloody disgusting, but I miss the concept of a monster with a personality. But while
The Strain is as gruesome and dripping red as one could hope, its overall impact as a horror novel is decidedly light. There is a definite feeling that more del Toro and less Hogan could have improved things tremendously.

To its credit, Strain begins with a terrifically tense first act; a plane lands at JFK Airport in New York, and immediately afterward goes completely silent. After calling in the experts, including Ephraim Goodweather of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the plane is cracked open to reveal a surplus of dead bodies with no discernible method of death. Quarantining the lot, Goodweather takes command of the examination of the bodies, which soon begin to display strange tendencies not usually associated with the recently deceased.

The first half of The Strain is where the mix of classic horror and 21st technology works the best. There is real menace in the early going-ons, and the authors expertly raise the tension through the addition of flashbacks to the life of Abraham Setrakian, the novel's Van Helsing, who became obsessed with tracking down the monsters after an encounter at the Treblinka extermination camp in World War II. There are also glimpses of an overarching narrative that will no doubt be fleshed out in the second and third novels, a hint that there is far more to the vampire empire than the almost mindless creatures that begin decimating the neighbourhoods of Manhattan.

There is also a concerted effort to explain the biological aspects of vampirism; or at least, these vampires. This comes as no surprise considering del Toro's past; Blade II has an absolutely lovely autopsy scene of a vampire hybrid, complete with blood, guts, a heart sheathed in bone, and an autonomic nervous system that won't be content to shut down. This can lead to slightly clunky exposition, as the characters are prone to spouting their explanations in medical techspeak; "It engorges as they feed. The flesh flushes almost crimson, their eyeballs, their cuticles. This stinger, as you call it, is in fact a reconversion, a repurposing of the old pharynx, trachea, and lung sacs with the newly developed flesh...The vampire can expel this organ from its own chest cavity, shooting out well over four and up to even six feet." But it's good that someone has at last tried to present the vampire as a functioning biological being rather than a supernatural force. These vampires do deviate from the norm somewhat, what with their extensible tongues that can infect you from across a room in place of the more classic fangs of yore, but at least they're true monsters.

Where Strain disappoints is in the creation of terror. Perhaps it's del Toro's cinematic background, but the narrative is shallow, with very little in the way of deeper characterization. Goodweather is a bland lead, with the stereotypical ex-wife and son that he absolutely must save. Setrakian is more interesting, but as a vampire hunter, he's had the more interesting life. But his main purpose appears to be to fill in the gaps of the narrative. Other characters flit in and out, but make little impact.

And the vampires themselves? At the present, they're little better than zombies. Hopefully in the sequels they take on some life, as it were, but in The Strain they serve only as mindless obstacles to overcome.

Which is where the novel truly disappoints. The lack of strong characters, and the focus on action and shocks, would work far better on the screen. As a novel, terror can only truly be achieved if the reader has an empathy for the characters, a vested interest in their survival. If you take Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot as a template (and fair or not, it is still the gold medal standard of modern vampire fiction), The Strain comes up far short. King provided characters of depth, which made their eventual outcomes more emotionally wrenching. del Toro and Hogan try, but end up giving us ciphers, good for moving the plot along, but unable to create interest beyond the superficial "wait until you see what happens next" variety.

There is a lot of pleasure to be had with The Strain, and despite del Toro's protestations that a movie will never happen, the almost-inevitable adaptation should be great fun. And perhaps as a trilogy, the novel's flaws will diminish as being the product of first act jitters. But there's no denying that The Strain is somewhat limp, a fast-paced actioneer that sacrifices emotional terror for gross-out gore. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying.



Emily said...

I don't know if vampires are scary but they certainly are cool. Have you heard that the Twilight DVD sales are expected to do really really well?


John Mutford said...

I loved this post. Frankly, I've always been intrigued by certain parts of vampire lore but have never had a vampire book "do it for me" in its entirety. Sure I like the sensuality of Dracula but hated the cliff-hanger moments in which Stoker got him out of a pickle by endowing him with yet another super-power (fog? really?), I love the New Orleans goth of IWAV but found the book dull as rust (not to mention spawning the emo-vampires you mentioned), and was not sufficiently scared by any (not even King's Salem's Lot). It's perhaps sad and telling that my favourite vampire book is Bunnicula.

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