Sunday, June 7, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Del Toro's 'Strain' only a middling potboiler

By Chauncey Mabe

One of the marvels of modern popular culture is the persistence of the vampire.

You would think by now every conceivable variation on the undead, rising to drink the blood of the living, would have been dramatized to a point beyond cliché. And you would be right. Yet each year new vampire movies and novels sprout like mushrooms, many of them finding wide and appreciative audiences. The vampire, it seems, is the monster that will not die.

Doubtless a part of the vampire’s evergreen appeal is its metaphorical pliability. It can represent almost any aspect of the human condition, from fear of the immigrant (Dracula), to fear of female sexuality (Dracula again), pestilence (Nosferatu), working-class rage (Near Dark), teen alienation (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), contagious disease (I Am Legend, Blade, Buffy), sexual awakening (Buffy, Interview with the Vampire, True Blood), homosexuality (Carmilla, Interview), identity politics (True Blood) and addiction (Buffy, True Blood, The Addiction).

If anyone can breathe new life into the old undead, it should be Guillermo Del Toro (at right), the Mexican film director who has earned a reputation as a moviemaker of rare skill and imagination. His pulp entertainments (Mimic, Hellboy, Blade II) are better than they strictly have to be. His more serious films, The Devil’s Backbone and, especially, Pan’s Labyrinth, combine the energy of horror with the grace of fairytale into beautiful and tragic visions.

Alas, in his first novel, The Strain: Book One of the Strain Trilogy, Del Toro has contented himself with standard entertainment. Perhaps because he is in New Zealand, directing the two Hobbit films for producer Peter Jackson, Del Toro enlisted popular crime novelist Chuck Hogan (The Prince of Thieves) as co-author. My bet, judging from the way this novel reads, is that Del Toro came up with the characters, ideas and story arc, while Hogan did the actual writing.

The principal vampire motif on offer here is the contagious disease one. After a shivery prologue about a Jewish boy entranced by his grandmother’s tales of a giant vampire in pre-World War II Romania, The Strain gets off to the kind of techno-medical-thriller bang patented by the late Michael Crichton.

A transatlantic airliner touches down at JFK, where it immediately goes dark. This being post-911 New York, an army of police, medical and Homeland Security forces converge on the silent aircraft, among them the comically named Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of an elite rapid-response team of the Centers for Disease Control. After the usual niceties, in which all manner of technical procedures are lovingly related, the team gains access to the interior of the airplane: Passengers and crew are dead by exsanguination, with no signs of violence apart from a small slit on the neck.

Only four people survive: three passengers and a co-pilot. Initially they are quarantined, but one of them is a lawyer who, seeing a career-making lawsuit against the airline, gets an injunction that springs them from the hospital. Just, of course, as they start to undergo gruesome physical changes that turn them into (gasp!) vampires, feeding first on their family members and then anyone who comes within reach. Before you can say “Broadway and 42nd Street,” Manhattan is overrun by a viral outbreak of relentless bloodsuckers.

“Viral” is the operative word here. Although Del Toro and Hogan throw in some familiar vampire boilerplate about an oversized coffin, ancient curses, a cabal of seven (or is it eight?) master vampires who’ve divided the world among them, The Strain is essentially a medical thriller. Vampirism is caused by a virus that kills the human being and revives the body as a zombie that serves only as a proxy for the rogue Ur-vampire known as Sardu, the Master.

Given Del Toro’s participation, the most discouraging thing about The Strain is its lack of imagination. Much is cribbed from Dracula, Crichton, and the horror novels of Stephen King. The silent airliner, for example, echoes the ghost ship, with its dead captain lashed to the helm, that brings Dracula to England. Del Toro even steals from himself, recycling the super-vamps, with their expanding mandibles, from Blade II.

Anyone hoping for the creative genius of Pan’s Labyrinth, or even the delirious inventiveness of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, will be disappointed. We’re in, at best, Mimic territory here.

Still, Hogan knows how to construct a popular novel, and he keeps the suspense percolating nicely. Of course, no novel with a colon in the title can be expected to provoke an aesthetic response by way of its prose, but Hogan’s workmanlike style serves the purpose of keeping the pages turning, as if by themselves.

The narrative jumps around among an ensemble of characters, and if Hogan lacks the human insight King brings to this strategy, he is at least efficient. Pains are taken to give texture to Goodweather’s personality – he’s a divorced genius, recovering from a drinking problem — but in action he’s a stolid, standard-issue hero. The minor characters are more engaging.

And that’s enough, I suppose. Suspense, narrative drive, a handful of likable or deliciously hateful two-dimensional characters, some gross and scary deaths -- The Strain delivers unambitious entertainment that will cause no existential unease. Readers enjoying this sort of thing can anticipate exactly the same pleasures in its two planned sequels, wherein the vampire backstory, as ridiculous as anything in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, if early hints are an indication, will be fully – er, fleshed out.

The Del Toro name on the cover may have led us to expect more (OK, much more), but a decent potboiler will have to suffice.

Chauncey Mabe, the former book editor for the Sun Sentinel, can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

THE STRAIN: Book One of the Strain Trilogy, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, Morrow, 401 pp., $26.99.

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