15 August, 2013

The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

So it's been a little while since I read Guillermo del Toro's The Strain and The Fall, but after finishing The Night Eternal I had to go back and do a little brush-up to see if I was remembering them accurately. I'd rated The Strain four stars on Goodreads, its successor three, which are solid ratings that mostly held up under a second scrutiny. I had high hopes for The Night Eternal, but sadly it didn't live up to the hype, and forced me to reassess my rating of the entire series.

It starts off so promisingly, too. The Strain was touted upon its release as "the book that makes vampires scary again", a bounceback from the supposed decline the neckbiters have been on since Bela Lugosi first donned an opera cape. And while I agree that the Cullens, Salvatores, Spikes and Erics of the pop culture world haven't been balanced out by an appreciable weight of run-for-your-fucking-life scary vamps, Del Toro and Hogan sought to tip the scales and ended up overbalancing them. As the series goes on the emphasis is very much on quantity rather than quality-- the characters devolve into predictable tropes; the plot gets bogged down in sidetracks that are boring, transparent or both; and the lion's share of the work seems to have gone into describing battles in as much cinematic detail as possible rather than giving any emotional weight to the characters' development. It is possible to have scary vampires and still tell a good story, and I'm going to point out the main areas where I think GDT and CH went off the rails.

1) They were writing for the screen, not the page. It's no secret that del Toro writes really well for the screen. Or that the trilogy has been optioned for a show on FX set to start shooting next year with John Hurt already cast as the Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter Setrakian. And in some authors' cases, writing with an eye for the cinematic isn't a bad thing-- look how well it worked out for Suzanne Collins. On the other hand, think about how bad the film version of Hannibal was. Writing when you know your book is going to end up on screen can take away a lot of the motivation to think about, well, your writing.

I'm not saying del Toro and Hogan were only worried about making the first book good, though one could certainly make a case for that reality. I have no idea what their thoughts were going into the series. But The Fall starts out in a pretty fractured and distracted state and only gets worse as it goes on, and The Night Eternal is a start-to-finish hot mess. At some point I just hit my threshold for being affected by violence and gore and just started nodding my head, going, "Uh huh, throat torn out, uh huh, head ripped off, uh huh..." The authors forgo giving their characters any real depth in favor of overlong descriptions of scenery, battles, and-- endlessly, endlessly-- the horrific, terrifying, disgusting vampires. They're gonna look great on screen, but God, I'm sick of reading about them. Which leads into my second point...

2) They didn't spend enough time on character development. Again, going back to the Hunger Games analogy-- the big difference between the Hunger Games books and the Strain trilogy is the thought and care with which Collins develops her characters. While it's true that in any epic series it's likely that the characters will end up resembling popular tropes, Collins' characters feel real, their struggles unique. Unfortunately, most of del Toro and Hogan's characters start off mediocre and get weaker, turning into one-note wonders that interact woodenly with each other and their surroundings. There's just so little that's new about this group-- which would be okay if they were sensitively written with any sort of emotional depth that would allow me to care about them. But they weren't.

He has a heart in a jar--
clearly he is not to
be fucked with.
Here's our main cast. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, CDC doctor, clearly marked from the beginning as the Brad Pitt of this World War V, in a custody battle with his ex-wife (who's quickly dispatched to vampiredom) and ends up an unreliable alcoholic and pain-killer addict. His son, Zach, 11 years old at the start of the trilogy, kidnapped by the Big Bad at the end of The Fall, brainwashed to hate his dad and used as perpetual blackmail against him. Dr. Nora Martinez, Eph's coworker and onetime girlfriend, whose Alzheimer's-ridden mother also ends up hitching to the baggage cart of the vampire resistance movement. Vasiliy Fet, a Brooklyn exterminator who starts as the Gimli of the group but quickly levels up in gravitas and badassery, falling for Nora on the way. Gus Elizalde, Mexican wrestler and gangbanger, drafted by a handful of the world's oldest vampires to help hunt the rogue who perpetrated the cataclysm, who keeps his vampire mother alive in the basement "just because". And Abraham Setrakian (pictured left), Holocaust survivor, vampire hunter, all-around blend of Obi-Wan, Gandalf and Professor X, and a living font of wisdom and asskicking (he carries a walking stick with a silver wolf's head that has a sword inside it, okay).

As you can see, we have a lot of tropes in this mix, which could be okay if handled correctly.  And to be clear, I'm not saying that because characters (any characters) happen to fit a particular trope, therefore they're shallow and formulaic. They don't have to be-- that's what makes the de-evolution of the people in this story into cardboard cutouts so frustrating.

The only exception to this rule was Setrakian, and him being gone was what really ruined The Night Eternal for me. He was the glue holding the whole operation together-- and what's funny is that the characters think so, too. I hadn't made it a quarter of the way into The Night Eternal before two or three separate people had thought to themselves, Man, if only the old man were here, and I spent most of the book thinking the same thing. Quinlan was the only character with even close to Setrakian's level of purpose, gravitas and believable emotional investment in taking the Master down, and we barely got to know him. Why wasn't he introduced in a big way earlier on in the series? Which leads me to point #3....

3) A lot of time is wasted on narratives that don't add to the story. I got absolutely nothing out of vampire!Kelly and the Master's POV sections. Why go to the trouble of hammering home what inhuman monsters these creatures are, only to then spend time narrating events from their points of view? If there had been some kind of redemption for Kelly in the end, I might've felt like her sections were warranted, but she got the same kind of hack-and-slash death that, let's be honest, she deserved. If the point was to deliver a sense of the net closing in on the rebels, that could have been done in a much defter way.

And what is with all the backstories and side explanations? They happened so often and to so little effect-- while no one would deny the necessity of knowing Setrakian's backstory, there was no need to spend three pages explaining why a solar eclipse is a misnomer, or giving a play-by-play of Quinlan's origins. Have Quinlan tell his story himself, Are-You-Afraid-Of-The-Dark style, or just explain it in a sentence. "My mom got bit while she was knocked up. Sucks to be me. Har har. Sucks... get it?" There was so much filler, and every time the story got interrupted for a three-page non sequitur, it lost the tenuous hold it had on my attention to begin with. Plus, there were so many plot points floating in the series' ether, it was hard to get a sense for how they were all meant to relate to each other. Which brings me to my final point...

4) There are too many plot points and too little satisfying resolution. Clearly GDT and CH have not heard of Chekhov's gun, which disappoints me. It's one of the building blocks of a good story: if you mention it, use it. The Master spends all this time carting around Setrakian's walking stick like a trophy, and no one ends up using it to kill him? Gus is keeping his vampire mother alive in a basement and she never gets out to wreak havoc? Using her to let the Master talk to Eph had nowhere near the dramatic impact I wanted. And those are just two of the many examples. Story devices were thrown around so willy-nilly that after awhile I didn't even care to sort out the important stuff from the red herrings. Which is pretty emblematic of the entire series, now that I think about it.

And I just have to ask, though I know I'm not going to get an answer: what, WHAT, is up with the comet and angels and sudden hairpin turn into divine good vs satanic evil stuff? I mean, as if a nuclear bomb wasn't a big enough deus ex machina, the whole contrived feel of the last book is compounded and intensified by this. Oh, Eph is meant to defeat the Master, and we know 'cus a comet broke through the cloud cover and fired up all the vamps trying to eat him that one time. Okay... what? 

I won't bore you with a recap of any of the rest of the book. Suffice to say that with an epilogue ten times more banal than the much-hated cap to Harry Potter, The Night Eternal couldn't have left me more bored or frustrated. No wonder I turned to Sookie Stackhouse almost immediately afterward-- those vamps may be glamorous, but at least I'm able to care about what happens to them. And while I may look forward to my weekly dose of Damon Salvatore's Adventures in Undead Womanizing as much as the next girl, as a fan of horror I understand and support the drive to take the sparkle out of vampires. In fact, when I first heard about The Strain, I applauded it and was practically salivating for it to hit shelves. But the trilogy comes to rely too much on shock value and tries to cover for its lack of characters you care about by hitting every fight scene trope in the book and hoping you won't notice.

Well, I noticed, and although I rated The Strain 4 stars on Goodreads I'm going to have to rate the series overall at a 2.5. Sorry Guillermo and Chuck. At least you can be sure this will make a kickass TV show-- though I can't promise I'll be tuning in to watch it.

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