Thursday, December 24, 2009

I've been a fan of Guillermo del Toro since his elegant, low key vampire movie Cronos. So naturally I picked up his and Chuck Hogan's vampire apocalypse novel THE STRAIN.

Del Toro and Hogan have gone and written them a bestseller. I'm sure the sales are great, but I mean the genre. There's a certain kind of book that you just know was written to sell a million copies, and then to be adapted into a spectacular feature film with a cast of stars and familiar faces.

My family has a friend, Arthur Herzog, who was writing unsuccessful literary novels in the 70's. He finally went to his agent and said, "I want to make some money." His agent said, "Take the New York Times Best Seller list, and read the top ten books."

He did, and then proceeded to bang out THE SWARM, a novel about a plague of killer bees.

So you have: the scary precipitating incident. The cast of initially unconnected heros. Minor, foreshadowing incidents. Then the badness kicks in. The good guys realize their predicament, meet each other, and start to fight it.

I like that THE STRAIN's vampires are not Edward Cullen-style sparkly ponies. They are a scary perversion of nature. They are human beings taken over by a virus and a parasitic worm, driven mad by lust for blood, and they spread by feeding. Fast.

Del Toro and Hogan have thought out the science fiction, so it feels convincing. These aren't mystical vamps, they're realistic vamps.

What I don't like is the book starts to feel formulaic. Of course the hero is a top expert from the Center for Disease Control. Of course he's estranged from his wife and kid. Of course they're in danger. Of course the other hero is an old man from Europe who knows all the folkore about vampires, and has been fighting them on his own. Of course there's a girl expert, too. Of course the forces of evil insidiously contrive to make them have to go on the run, and fight the vamps on their own.

I'm 60% into the novel, and I can't say that anything that's happened really surprised me. It's all fun and a little scary to read. But the plot unfolds just about how you would unfold it if you hired any competent write to construct a novel about a vampire apocalypse. The heroes aren't surprising. They're good people, without big flaws or complicated passions that would make them do the wrong (and surprising, and distinctive) thing. They're just generic smart people caught in an extraordinary situation.

The plot feels like it's built to support the eventual movie adaptation. You want to keep the plot focused on the motley band of heroes who are the sole hope of the human race, because those are your stars. That's why you have to put them on the run. It wouldn't do to have the heroes notify the White House, and then sit by while the Army and CDC and NYPD do their thing.

But then, how do a few heroes stop a vampire apocalypse? Soon we're hearing that you only have to kill the Master Vampire and you can stop the apocalypse. So it is a job for three people, after all.

Which was the point where I stopped reading and decided to write this post. Because I have trouble believing that vampires made by a virus and a parasitic worm give a hoot who the Master Vampire is. So there goes your convincing science fiction.

I think if I were writing about a vamp apocalypse, I would be more inclined to write a story like 28 DAYS LATER, where it's not about stopping the vamp apocalypse, it's about a couple of people trying to survive it. A close, personal story, where the characters are flawed, and don't necessarily help each other, and get into arguments at inappropriate times.

Of course, that's not a bestseller. That's a novel in danger of becoming literary. Then you have a literary novel about vampires, and what section do you put it in? I had the same thing with THE CIRCLE CAST: it's a novel about a girl with a huge talent and a huge flaw, and that makes it sort of a literary novel. But it's a literary novel about a young sorceress learning her magical powers, so what section do you put it in?

I sometimes wonder if I could write a bestseller. Again, not talking about sales figures; that's as much to do with marketing as anything. On the one hand I think I could write a book like this one, or like THE SWARM. On the other hand, I think I would be strongly drawn to making the characters flawed and interesting, and taking the plot off in some unexpected direction. And then it wouldn't be a bestseller any more.


I finished reading THE STRAIN. What a disappointment. Where is the Guillermo del Toro of PAN'S LABYRINTH? You would think a novel would be more personal, more distinctive, than his movies. After all, it costs nothing to write a book, and it costs millions to make a movie. A novel can be anything you want. A movie has to answer to the studio fronting the money; the music is the composer's, the acting is the star's. Aside from the scary vampires with their six foot tongues, where's del Toro? (And it's not like we haven't seen six foot tongues before, e.g. Doc from Season 5 of Buffy.) It's as if he sat down with Chuck Hogan for a few days, gave him some ideas, and then walked away, leaving the bestseller writer to do his thing.

It's not even top quality bestseller writing. At the end of the four day period of the novel, the hero is bravely uploading footage of a vamp to the Internet, to prove they exist. This, after vampires have been rampaging around all over Manhattan for days. Surely there would be hundreds of videos up on YouTube by this point? The Iranians managed it, and they had to smuggle cell phones out of the country.

Well, I hope del Toro will take his loot and go and make a personal movie. Something truly creepy, and unique, and original.

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