Monday, 7 April 2014

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Strain Hogan/Del Toro

This time out I'm going to be talking about the Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan vampire collaboration, The Strain, first of a trilogy. It's also going to become a TV series, allegedly, though since this is in development and it is Fox behind it, the deal may collapse under its own weight before it hits the small screen. Del Toro I assume you've heard of by now, if you've any interest in horror at all. Hogan is less well known, though if you're a fan of crime then you may have come across his novel-turned-movie The Town. I'm not sure how the two of them got together, though if I had to bet money I'd say it was thanks to a kindly publisher.

The novel is set in current day New York. A Boeing 777 has just landed at JFK and everything, right up to the landing itself, seems normal. Except soon after its last transmission everything goes dark, and when the authorities finally board they discover all the passengers and crew are - seemingly - dead. The CDC's Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather discovers a small number of survivors, including a rock star, a kid, a co-pilot and a tort attorney, all of whom are whisked off to safety while the dead are packed off to several nearby hospital morgues. Except those corpses don't stay there very long, and the survivors start exhibiting some very peculiar symptoms. Before you know it the dead are walking, and a wizened survivor of Nazi concentration camps appears telling anyone who'll listen that Vampires are invading the Big Apple.

So far, so very cinematic, and there are plenty of touches here that scream Del Toro. I'm not as familiar with Hogan's work as to be able to pick out his contributions from the rest of the text, but I'll go out on a limb and say he did the majority of the writing while Del Toro was the ideas man. There are moments that would look magnificent on screen, but have little or no narrative use, like the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse event that has no purpose other than to let people use the word Occult very knowledgeably. There's also an early cut-away to the International Space Station that exists for no other reason than to let the action be pictured from above by characters who will never be plot-relevant again. You can almost picture Del Toro looking down his nose at a production company's accountant and saying 'it is vital to my vision! Without it, there is no film!'

The central idea is almost too large for comfort. When Stephen King does the same thing with Salem's Lot about two thousand people are wiped out; an unimaginable tragedy, but a small one in the grand scheme of things. About as many died when the Titanic sank. The small scale also allows King to set up several main-character-development vignettes, and establish backgrounds for the dozens of minor players who are about to get caught up in events. You can't do the same thing when 8.4 million people potentially are at risk, and the City itself lacks life thanks in part to the impossibility of conveying the identity of all the different locations the novel touches on. It all becomes very blurred. You don't get the same sense of place, and as a writer there's a risk - which I suspect the creative team fell foul of - that you'll end up broad-brushing a few iconic scenes in the hope that the reader's seen enough TV shows to fill in the blanks. 

The motivation of the central antagonists is also a little shaky. We're told there are several elders operating behind the scenes, and that the one who's causing all the trouble is a rogue who doesn't play by the rules. We're also introduced to an elderly financier whose willingness to cheat death no matter the cost is the spark that sets off the fireworks display. Yet the financier lacks any kind of motivation or characterization, and I can't help wondering if we're not supposed to dislike him because Duh, Money Men Are Teh Evilz, and not because he's willing to get everyone killed so he can live forever. You have to wonder why he wants eternal life if, as seems entirely plausible, civilization will come crashing down soon afterwards and the piles of cash in his money bin are about to become worthless. Who wants to live forever as a pauper?

Why, for that matter, is the rogue master buying in? If the novel's central conceit is to be believed, it never needs the financier. The money man's sole purpose is to buy the rogue master a plane ticket and make sure his coffin gets on board the Boeing. But if that's so then anyone could have done what the financier does; not as efficiently, true, but who cares about efficiency when you can slaughter every one of the Boeing's passengers and crew in five seconds flat? And how did it pull off that trick? There's nothing in the novel that suggests it has that kind of power, apart from the inciting event, and you'd think that if it could just knock everyone out and kill them within seconds then the rest of Manhattan ought to be about ten minute's work. Yet clearly that isn't so. Again, I see the hand of Del Toro in that magnificent, cinematic moment when the CDC team boards the aircraft and finds everyone dead, lying there as if asleep; but although the scene looks good, it'd seem that neither Del Toro nor Hogan really knew what to do with the idea after it germinated.

Where this novel kicks off is in the initial investigative scenes, where Dr Goodweather and his team start putting the pieces together. Many of the subsequent action scenes are also very fun to read, and the vampire physiology - which I won't spoil here - is an intriguing mix of folklore and biological fantasy. This is also one of the novel's less solid conceits, since it means reconciling ideas like 'they can't cross water' with 'holy water and crucifixes are just superstitions, and it's all working like a disease, really.' The two philosophies don't work well together, and eventually the wizened concentration camp survivor has to fling up his hands and say, 'look, I don't know why it's so, I just know that it's so, okay?'

I'd recommend this novel to anyone looking for Night's Black Agents inspiration, particularly for those trying to get away from the usual vampire tropes. There's a lot of inspirational stuff here, and though in the end Del Toro seems not to be wearing any clothes, he does naked very well. There's an artistic brilliance in the idea, even if it does fall apart on closer inspection. Without knowing Hogan's style better than I do, I don't want to say that one thing or another is his fault or his idea, but were I Hogan I suspect I'd be closing my eyes to the problem and cashing a well-deserved paycheck. It is, at times, an excellent vampire novel and any horror fan will find things to like about it. Whether they like the finished product in its totality is something else again, but it's well worth a look at even so.

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