Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Strain Trilogy

The Strain: Book I of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009): Apparently, the new F/X series based on this vampire trilogy is something of a slow-moving mess. That's too bad, as this book and the next two may have flaws, but being slow-moving isn't one of them.

Guillermo del Toro seems to have come up with most of the concepts, monster designs, and all-around ickiness for the series, with thriller writer Hogan supplying the actual prose. It's a pretty good match, as del Toro's main flaw in his film work has been the occasional aimlessness of his plotting.

The Strain builds to a climax that really sets the stage for greater, more apocalyptic events to come. The chief villain is a vampire known only as the Master, one of seven Vampire Ancients who have existed since pre-history. With the help of an extremely unscrupulous zillionaire named Eldritch Palmer (a nod to Philip K. Dick's malevolent cyborg Palmer Eldritch), the Master comes to New York to break the long truce with the other six Ancients and take over the world.

Against the Master are set a Van Helsing figure -- Setrakian, a survivor of the Holocaust who first encountered the Master at Treblinka -- and a ragtag group that also includes Ephraim Goodweather, a top-ranking doctor with the Centres for Disease Control; Nora Hernandez, his female co-worker; Gus, a Hispanic gang-banger; and Fet, a New York exterminator.

The Strain focuses on the quasi-scientific aspects of the vampire plague, while dropping hints throughout that these are nonetheless not simply the products of the world's worst Ebola outbreak. Scenes set beneath the streets of New York and in its increasingly vampire-infested bedroom communities are the strongest. Hogan keeps the plot zipping along while also doing a fairly strong job of arousing sympathy for both our heroes and for the unfortunate victims of the Strain.

As the first book of a trilogy, The Strain asks more questions than it answers. But the questions are pretty interesting. And the mix of science and, well, magic, suggests a world in which supernatural forces must occasionally work through scientific means to achieve their ends. The vampires have a viral pathology that's fairly well-explored herein, in the manner of Richard Matheson's landmark 'rational' vampire novel I Am Legend. But it's in service to something from Outside human and scientific experience. The scientific explanations for the efficacy of silver and UV-C rays against the vampires don't fully explain the speed with which silver and sunlight work in dispatching them.

As in his work on Cronos and Blade 2, del Toro heavily invests in de-eroticizing the vampire and returning it to its plague-bearing, rotting, drooling roots. The vampires here share some physical traits with his super-vampires in Blade 2. However, the squalid pathos of the turned also echoes some scenes in Cronos -- these are vampires who foul themselves while eating, and rapidly lose their sexual organs as the cancer-like apparatus of the vampire physiology takes hold. Shiny and sparkly they are not. Recommended.


The Fall: Book II of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2010): The vampire apocalypse accelerates in the second book of The Strain Trilogy, with lots of ickiness and tragedy for all. The supernatural starts to assert itself, as we gradually see that while the vampire plague seems to be viral in nature, it's supernatural in origin and intent.

There are a lot of nice set-pieces here, ripe for visual interpretation. One of the threads -- that the Master has learned new ways to be cruel from humanity -- begins to come to the forefront. So, too, the weaknesses of his human opponents, who are themselves compromised by their fear for their relatives, by old age, by alcoholism, and by ignorance of the Master's origins.

Part of the novel involves the quest to secure an ancient book that explains everything you need to know about vampires and how to kill them. Thankfully, the quest for this item is handled in a refreshingly off-beat but pragmatic way: the book is up for auction at a major New York auction house. It's these touches of the mundane that help make the second volume stronger in many ways than the first. Recommended.


The Night Eternal: Book III of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011): This is the end. The Master, his vampires, and his human collaborators have won. Much of the Earth has been enslaved. Society continues to function under a pall of nuclear winter which has blotted out the sun for the most part. Inspired by his experience with the Nazis, the Master has created concentration camps to provide his vampires with a reliable source of liquid nourishment. People still live and work outside the camps, either as collaborators or as the cowed servants of the Vampire elite. The world is now one big factory slaughterhouse.

But the Resistance lives on, outnumbered and outgunned. The surviving protagonists of the first two books have been bloodied and beaten. The Master has now survived two attacks that should have killed him, were he simply a vampire like all the other vampires. Madness, alcoholism, and in-fighting plague the surviving rebels as much as the vampires do. Ephraim Goodweather, nominally the leader of the Resistance, has almost succumbed to alcohol-fueled despair when the novel opens. Can he get off the mat?

The supernatural elements introduced in Book Two now become ascendant, as del Toro and Hogan's narrative begins to resemble The Lord of the Rings more than anything else (and remember that del Toro was going to direct The Hobbit movies before he bowed out, and retains a screen-writing credit on them). The book delves into the secret history of vampires, thanks to the book that was the quest-item of The Fall. There is a way to end vampirism forever, one that the Master himself has shown them in the way he eliminated the other six Vampire Ancients at the end of Book Two. It's time to nuke it out to duke it out!

Even with a certain number of scenes of psychological anguish and equivalence on the part of several characters, the plot of The Night Eternal moves quickly and efficiently towards its climax, with a few enjoyable stops in the realms of myth and legend. The Master's origin story is bizarre and striking, as is the explanation for all the weaknesses of vampires derived from that tale. I was entertained. Recommended.

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