The Strain (2009)

Reading The Strain made me ridiculously depressed that the rumors that Guillermo Del Toro was on the short list to direct the 3rd installment in the Twilight Saga were not true. A) Because the man can spin straw into goal (see my previous post on Blade 2; and B) Because Del Toro can write one heck of a scary vampire novel.

The story opens with a plane landing at the airport, and in the few seconds between touching down and beginning to taxi, the plane goes completely dark—both literally and figuratively. The plane becomes a dead thing, in essence: every mechanical system fails, every shade is drawn down, and there is no communication from the crew or even the indication that a breakdown of this magnitude was eminent. The plane is quickly revealed to be an even more gruesome dead thing when the rescue crew finally cuts through the hull and discovers that all the passengers, save four, are dead ( a nice little reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the arrival of Dracula in London on The Demeter, actually). The corpses are all arrested in time, revealing no struggle, no sign of a known disease, no sign of violence, nothing. The CDC is eventually called in and everyone waits for the four survivors to recover enough to reveal what happened to the flight. Of course, they don’t remember. As the small team of protagonists, two members of the CDC, an elderly survivor of the Holocaust, and a pest exterminator, slowly put the evidence together, they are forced to concede that an ancient vampire was secreted onto the flight, consumed everyone on board and infected the four, who would eventually turn into vampires themselves. The story plays out from here.

Two things in particular make this a terrifying story. First, Del Toro and co-writer Chuck Hogan, imagine some really spooky vampires (there is a funny clip on the official website of the book in which Del Toro derides “romantic, languid young men sucking the necks of beautiful people”). Their vampire mythos locates vampires at the border between prehistory and history. We learn that there are seven originals, three in Europe and three in America, and that a complicated truce exists between these two groups. However, there is also one vampire who chooses to be a lone wolf. His story is intimately connected to the story of one of the protagonists, a Jewish man named Abraham Setrakian. We eventually learn that this rogue vampire is not only the boogieman Jusef Sardu from the ghost stories Setrakian’s grandmother told him when he was a child growing up in Poland, he is the vampire who feasted on the weak and dying at Treblinka, where Setrakian was imprisoned as a young man during WWII, and that it is this vampire that has come to America, thus not only bringing the scourge of vampirism but also upsetting the balance of power between the European and American groups. So while the human protagonists of the story like to imagine that it is a matter of human vs. vampire, good vs. evil, the reality is that this is the beginning of a war between vampires with humanity as mere collateral damage. Del Toro’s vampires are so creepy and so different from our modern conceptions of vampires that part of the pleasure of reading the novel is just the pure, heart pounding rush that happens whenever we anticipate the vampire Sardu to show up.

The vampire is also associated with sites of extreme human evil. In particular, the Holocaust and site of the Twin Towers post 9-11. His encounter with Sardu in the Nazi death camps radically changed Setrakian’s understanding of evil and providence as he saw that vampire happily feasting at night on the sick and dying while the Nazis feasted on them in other ways during the day. Setrakian’s miraculous escape crystallizes his resolve to devote his life to finding and destroying this evil even greater than Nazis. We also learn, as our team of heroes attempts to figure out where the Sardu’s nest is, that he would have been drawn to a similar location of evil and death in America. This is the rubble of the Twin Towers. Sardu’s association with these two terrifying sites of violence, annihilation, and a hatred manifested in a process that literally consumes human bodies overlaps with Sardu’s own literal consumption of human blood, creating a complicated and unbearably chilling relationship between the black heart of humanity and the already terrifying vampire. It’s a heady mix and I found Del Toro’s choice of locating Sardu at both Treblinka and the site of the Twin Towers to be inspired.

Second, Del Toro shows us the gruesome aftermath of the vampire’s slaughter of the people on board the plane by essentially following up after them throughout the course of the novel. We see as the four survivors slowly transform into vampires themselves and watch their own horror as they slowly process what is happening to them, even as their minds are increasingly unequipped to handle such a task. Even more horrifying is watching how human needs seamlessly shift into non-human ones. As each of the four survivors slowly succumb to their disease (all four initially think they have contracted some kind of virus from the airplane), they long to be comforted and provided for by their loved ones, a completely human response to suffering. But, as their transformation nears completion, their desire to be comforted and provided for is rendered into longing to be comforted and provided for by drinking their loved ones, a completely non-human response. And this is really Del Toro at his best. Horror is always a human thing as much as a supernatural one in your typical Del Toro movie. The source of the evil that begins the uncanny events of his films are almost always located back at some human evil—rape, murder, abuse of children and women, dictatorship, etc. The Strain is no different. As the four survivors turn, the plain banal evil that lurks in every human heart is exaggerated to its fullest extreme so that what was once a petty vice is revealed as part of the horror itself. For example, one of the survivors is a female lawyer trying to make partner at her firm. She smells a career making lawsuit in the mysterious tragedy of the plane. But we discover that she is also racist, hates her children, and is all but officially separated from her husband—he takes extended “business trips” and delays coming home until the latest possible moment by hanging out at the airport bar. The “demonic face” she makes when she yells at her children to shut up because they are bothering her after all long day of work becomes the demonic face she makes as a vampire set on eating them and silencing them once and for all. Del Toro pulls no punches here either. We see parents consuming children and babies, husband consuming wife and visa versa, friends and neighbors turning on one another. It’s all fair game. It is as if no human bond or relationship can stand in the face of the vampire.

I assume, of course, that Del Toro plans to make his novel into a film – how could he not? – but official plans for the The Strain only mention that it if the first of a trilogy. If he does make it into a movie, it’s going to scare the pants off you. As for Del Toro directing Eclipse? Well, lots of romantic, languid young men there. . . .


PS. Watch one of the viral videos created to promote the book: