The Strain

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Strain
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, 2009

The short of it: I really liked this book.  It's extremely fitting for this to be the final book in my vampire survey, because it is a modern mash-up/reinterpretation of the best bits of many of the books I've read earlier.  One of the quotes on the back even calls it “an unholy spawn of I Am Legend [and] Salem's Lot.”  It was scary and gross and awesome.

And now, a story.  In September of 2009, Erin entered a contest, in which first prize was tickets to the Fellowship of the Ring live concert at Radio City Music Hall.  He didn't win that.  He did win second place, in which the prize was supposed to be a copy of the book The Music of the Lord of the Rings, a copy of The Hobbit audiobook, and a bookmark.  You can read the short piece that he won with here. 

However, the Music... book got tied up in copyright problems, and as of this date has still not been released.  So instead of delaying the prize package indefinitely, in October the contest runners sent us the audiobook, the bookmark, and a copy of The Strain, under the impeccable logic string that follows.   Book about LoTR movies = LoTR movies = Hobbit movies in pre-production = Guillermo Del Toro to direct = GDT wrote a book = That's practically the same thing!  But I'm certainly not complaining.

Without getting too into the plot, I can safely tell you that the book is about vampires invading New York City.  In the first chapter, a plane lands at JFK, then shuts down immediately, all systems quiet.  Something is very very wrong.  This might be one of the first modern books set in NYC that I've read since moving here, and that does give it an extra level of eeriness for me.  The vampires are quite powerful and very scary.  The humans are confused and brave and many of them are doomed to die horribly.  The creeping dread is very well done in this book, and the whole thing reads at a wonderfully breathless pace.

The book is really pretty, too.  I like the font choices, and the symbol on the section dividers that looks like a cross between an ancient talisman and a modern biohazard symbol.  That basically sums up the attitude of the whole story, both metaphorically and literally.  If inexplicable disease started plaguing New York City, don't you think they'd call the outbreak containment team?

They do a great job recreating the diversity of NYC in these characters, down to the smallest parts.  Lots of great names; Del Toro, for somewhat obvious reasons, seems to default to Latino/Hispanic characters for small “generic” roles that another author might have made white.  This was a nice refresher for me, because I'm sure I don't always notice when authors stack their books with too high a proportion of white characters in “generic” parts considering where/when their books are set, but I'll try to do better.

The possible science of vampires, and vampire legends, is explored in depth here, as it was in I Am Legend, but the science is more plausible for a modern reader.  Of course, who knows if it will be in 50 years.  I agree with the commentary I quoted at the top, in that it modernizes the idea of vampires, approaching them scientifically, while still focusing on the kind of human drama that makes Salem's Lot so gripping.

I don't want to give away too much more, but I recommend this book fully to horror readers of all stripes, and vampire fans who prefer Blade to Twilight.  These vampires are gross, and very, very deadly.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Of necessity, some small spoilers follow...

Vampiric powers in The Strain include:
Some hypnosis, works more like a telepathic compulsion
No Animal Control, no turning into animals, but this part of the myth is acknowledged and explained.
Appearance changed to grotesque human-like creature, (think along the lines of Noseferatu/Nomak from Blade 2) degree of change may be dependent on length of time as a vampire.

Limitations include:
May need darkness for full awareness, do not have to fully sleep in the day, but are less effective.
Need connection to soil, in a sense.  Many vamps sleep in dirt or underground because it protects them from the sun.
Do not need to be invited into a building
Not weak against garlic or holy symbols
Some difficulty crossing running water

New vampires?
Made via bite, draining of blood.  Partially drained victims may not die fully for several days, over which time they feel extremely ill, or fully drained victims may rise after a period of time.  Similar to Interview... actually, full transformation is a process that takes time and pain.  New vampires are weaker, slower than more experienced ones.  (Also, FYI White Wolf fans, they seem to have a 'Generation' system in play as well.)

How to destroy:
Remove the head from the body, or otherwise destroy the head.  They do not turn to dust.  Sunlight kills, but not instantly.  Silver or ultraviolet light injures them.

Next Week:
I'm wrapping up vampires with a few parting thoughts and a comic review.

In Two Weeks:
The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick


Monday, April 19, 2010

Stephanie Meyer, 2005

Spoilers abound, but you probably expected that.

About half-way through reading this book, I began to wish that I had read it when it came out.  Because if I hadn't basically known what was to come in the later books, I could have mustered both a little hope that the book would dig itself out of its hole, and more hate on where the book ends up.  As it is, my overall response is a relatively apathetic "Meh."  On the plus side it reads really fast, except for when supremely awkward turns of phrase threw me.  On the minus side, it was so lacking in substance as to be lighter than I like even for popcorn reading, maybe call it cotton candy prose.

As of about half-way through, Twilight, while written in a simplistic style with very poor description, didn't completely suck.  Even with what I knew about the series, I could almost convince myself that the whole thing had a pretty smart unreliable narrator thing going on.  Bella is a sullen, self-absorbed teenager with a serious crush.  This is not weird.  She is not a special snowflake, she is not mature for her age, she is not smarter than everyone else, she just thinks she is, because that's what most of us do when we're teenagers.  This is so obvious in the writing, I'm a little confused that the author seems to miss it.  Edward, despite being undead, is a teenager too.  He's not mature as he should be for a hundred-year-old vampire, he's just a posturing “bad boy” asshole.  What depresses me, is that this could have been a decent book.  After all, supernatural charisma and adolescent hormones are awfully similar.

They are both dumb characters, but with a better plot, they could have been interesting.  But the entire second half of the book (i.e. the plot) comes out of nowhere, is completely idiotic, and just... ugh.

Ways the book could have pulled out of the dive, without even changing the first half of what Meyer wrote:
  • Edward's “family” disapproves of their relationship, or demands that he turn her, or kicks him out, or something, anything with actual tension to it.
  • Bella unwittingly leads the werewolves to the vamps, or unwittingly breaks their treaty and she gets trapped in some supernatural turf war
  • As written, Edward refuses to turn Bella, but goes along with her for quite a while, separating her from her friends and family, then in the last chapter, they meet a pretty new girl, and Bella doesn't return to school the next day.  No sequel.
  • Bella leaves for a weekend to visit her mom, returns aware that Edward's affect on her is a hypnotic trick (seriously, it works with her own narration).
  • Bella finally tricks one of the vamps into turning her, (possibly can't handle the power, kills/almost kills someone?) and Edward is no longer attracted to her now that she's undead.  (This is seriously the only logic I can muster for what could be going on inside his head.)
  • Edward loses control around Bella, she manages to lie to him that she's okay long enough to get away, flees to sun country.  Lives in fear.
  • Similar: Edward finally takes out one of the hapless high school boys in a jealous rage.  This cannot be pretty.  Bella witnesses this, freaks, turns to the wolves, or possibly finds a Van Helsing-style character (preferably an older woman) to help her drive them off.
  • Edward leaves town to “protect” Bella. (As I believe happens in the next one?)  Bella leaves town to search for him.  Has adventures, nice coming-of-age fairy tale stuff.  Reaches him when she's 22, he's...still 17.  Discovers he's not nearly as pretty, or as nice, as she remembers, moves on with her life.

All of these would have been plausible endings.  If one of these things happen in the later books, somebody let me know.  What is not plausible is the pablum that was written. 

More Nit-picky things:
You can tell this isn't a teenager or young person writing, even in 2005, because Bella seems to be fighting a losing battle against pop-up ads from the instant she opens her browser.  Sweetie, that's not the internet, that's a virus.  You should get that checked.

Also, I find the image of touching/kissing/whatever someone whose body feels hard and cold, like marble, to be extremely unsexy.

Why doesn't Edward want to turn Bella?  All his reasons are dumb, unless there's something terrible about being a vamp, but that just doesn't seem to be the case here.  Something else this book badly needs is the downside to vampirism, other than an urge to eat people, which they don't seem to have much trouble with.  Similar to Interview, the biggest annoyance with being a vampire seems to be a sense of existential ennui.

Sorry Meyer, but Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex is not a new or interesting excuse for putting a damper on teenage hormones.  

Also, being unrealistically clumsy and a danger magnet is only an appropriate character flaw if you're the token girl in a Saturday morning cartoon in the 80's.  Being sure you've found the answer to your life and your true love at 17 is a great flaw.  Too bad Meyer didn't realize she'd written it.

And she desperately needs to learn to 'show don't tell'.

Why in the name of anything holy, if you were immortal, AND needed to avoid humans to some degree, would you choose a cover as a HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT?!?  That, more than anything, causes me to recoil in disbelief, and doubt that the vamps are entirely sane.

Also, they smell nice?  WTF?  That's just... too weird for me.

It was interesting reading this one right after Guilty Pleasures, I found myself comparing scenes.  Both first person, romantic/scary vampire books, neither written super well.  To be fair, Guilty Pleasures is definitely written for adults, and a lot of what I disliked about Twilight was how wussy it was.  Not enough sexuality, not enough violence, not even for your average teen movie, much less a vampire novel.  Also, despite often being technically clunky, I find Hamilton's writing just more fun.

But, choose for yourself.  On kissing a vampire:
Edward hesitated to test himself, to see if this was safe, to make sure he was still in control of his need.
And then his cold, marble lips pressed very softly against mine.
What neither of us was prepared for was my response.
Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips.  My breath came in a wild gasp.  My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me.  My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent.
Immediately I felt him turn to unresponsive stone beneath my lips.  His hands gently, but with irresistible force, pushed my face back.  I opened my eyes and saw his guarded expression.
“Oops,” I breathed.
“That's an understatement.”
His eyes were wild, his jaw clenched in acute restraint, yet he didn't lapse from his perfect articulation.  -Twilight, Page 282

He was going to kiss me.  I didn't want him to.  But I didn't want the police to stop and question us.  I didn't want to explain the blood stains, the torn blouse.  His lips hesitated over my mouth.  His heartbeat was loud in my head, his pulse was racing, and my breathing was ragged with his need.
His lips were silk, his tongue a quick wetness.  I tried to pull back and found his hand at the back of my neck, pressing my mouth against his.
The police spotlight swept over us.  I relaxed against Jean-Claude, letting him kiss me.  Our mouths pressed together.  My tongue found the smooth hardness of fangs.  I pulled away, and he let me.  He pressed my face against his chest, one arm like steel against my back, pressing me against him. He was trembling, and it wasn't from the rain. -Guilty Pleasures, Page 39-40
But for all my problems with the book, I can't hate Bella.  She's annoying and dumb, but I just want to give her a small superpower, some tai chi or ballet or something to fix her balance, some friends, and some common sense, and hope she discovers the worth of being her own person.  I know that's not how the books go, but in the world where I don't read any more of them, I can dream.

1 Star - Didn't Much Like It

Vampiric powers in Twilight include:
No explicit hypnosis, do have intense personal charisma
No animal Control
Cannot turn into bat, wolf, dust
Appearance stuck at age of 'death'
Smell nice?
Individual vamps have extra powers pulled from the Psionics Handbook: mind-reading, empathic control, precognition.

Limitations include:
Reflect sunlight very...obviously.
Do not sleep during the day, or need darkness for powers
Do not need to be invited into a building
Not weak against garlic, roses, crosses or other holy symbols

New vampires?
Made by “venom”, transmitted in a single bite.  (“Venom?”  Seriously?)  This should push these guys way way down on the Sliding Scale of Vampire Friendliness, but it's explained that they almost always kill anyone they bite.  Except for these vampires.  Who are all nice and sweetness and light, and American as apple pie.

How to destroy:
Dismember and burn, apparently.  But they're super strong, so I'm really not sure how a human would go about killing one of these guys.  It's very unclear why the Twilight vamps haven't overrun their world.

Next Week:
The book that we got for free, that inspired me to go on this wild vampire chase:  The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Guilty Pleasures

Monday, April 12, 2010

Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Book 1)
Laurell K. Hamilton, 1993

I opened this book with a bit of trepidation, because even though I've read it before, I was a bit concerned how it would hold up. But you know what? I kinda love this stupid book.

This series eventually winds its way into increasingly ridiculous, and what I like to call porn-tastic, situations, but this first one, while slapdash and odd, has some real charm. One big thing you have to be able to just go with to enjoy this book is the seemingly commonplace male strippers. The vampires seem to be easy to accept by comparison, according to various people I've spoken to.

In re-reading it, I realized specifically why I like it. It's an unapologetic modern pulp novel. It's a first-person, flamboyantly described, sex and violence pulp novel. With paranormal stuff and a female protagonist. In my book, that spells super fun.
I had gotten to see the sun rise as I drove home that morning. I hate sunrises. They mean I've overscheduled myself and worked all bloody night....My apartment always looks depressingly white and cheerful in morning sunlight. The walls are the same vanilla ice cream white as every apartment I've ever seen.
Hamilton's world includes vampires, other forms of undead, all manner of were-creatures, and animators, aka zombie-raisers. Vampires have just been recognized as legal citizens of the USA, and a lot of fun is had with that idea, particularly in the attitudes of some minor characters vs. our heroine: Anita Blake, animator and licensed vampire slayer. She is under no illusions that vamps are like humans. She also has a degree in preternatural biology and works with the police as a vamp/supernatural expert. Like any good pulp hero, she runs from crisis to crisis, just trying to keep her head above water.
Dammit, it should have worked. The bad guys weren't allowed reinforcements when I was already outnumbered.
The details are nice. Hamilton puts a lot of thought into the guns Anita carries, the hassles involved in her line of work, and the various implications of legal vampirism, The Church of Eternal Life being the most obvious.

It was intriguing reading this right after Interview wtV, because of the characters which are adapted (ripped-off) from Anne Rice. The two most important vamps in the story are a way-too-pretty French vamp and a kid. Which, happily, is where the resemblance ends.

*Small Character Spoiler*
Jean-Claude is hardly in this one, but when he is, he's gently manipulating Anita to serve his own complicated political goals. In the next book he's quickly established as a great business vampire, very personable, very good with humans, realistic about most things, while still being dangerous and seductive, and very not mopey. Nikolaos, on the other hand, just rocks the little-girl vampire aesthetic. She is the most powerful vampire in this book, and has clearly decided that she can be sickeningly cute, powerful as sin, and anciently seductive, all at the same time. And evil. She's really good at evil. Claudia had much more psychological depth, but for sadism she just can't rival the girl who can pretty much rip your mind out with her eyes. *End character spoiler*

This began one of the first few really popular paranormal romance series, before it was its own subgenre. Unfortunately, the many sequels to this book ran off the rails once the author got way too emotionally involved with the characters. The books eventually turned from sexy thrillers into occasionally violent erotica, and Hamilton began using them as her personal therapy sessions.
On the other hand...

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

But today I'm just looking at the first one.

Vampiric powers in Guilty Pleasures include:
Hypnosis, including long-distance compulsion after either biting a human, or putting one into a deep trance. Depend on eye contact. Animators have a limited immunity to this. Crosses also help humans resist mind control.
Also most can do general mind tricks, for example: can create mass illusions, appear to look different, move faster, implant some emotions.
A degree of super-speed, but a lot of that is part of hypnosis
Animal Control! We haven't seen animal control in a while. “Master” vampires (more powerful, not necessarily oldest) can control a particular animal. The one in this book calls rats.
Cannot turn into bat, wolf, dust
Appearance stuck at time of 'death'
Some have limited levitation
“Mark” humans. More below.

Limitations include:
Asleep during the day. More powerful vampires can awaken before full dark.
No stated connection to soil from native land
Is not stated in this book whether they need to be invited into a building, I think in the second or third it comes up that they do need the invitation.
Unclear whether weak against garlic, or wild rose
Driven back by holy symbols, when backed up by faith. Holy symbols glow and become warm in the presence of a vampire.
No stated difficulty crossing running water

New vampires?
Not stated, implied that they are made by draining the blood of the victim while under mind control over three (bites? nights? unclear). A neat twist here is that even though a vampire has some power over someone he/she has bitten, that control can be revoked, (and, it is implied, the vampirism process halted), by cleaning the wound with Holy Water. It just hurts like hell to do this.

Master vampires can also “mark” humans, each mark gives the human partial supernatural abilities. One is a metaphysical connection which gives stamina and healing, two a mental connection which allows some telepathic communication. After four marks, the last of which involves consuming vampire blood, the human is immortal, so long as the vampire is. It's a one-vampire-bonded-to-one-human sort of deal, though, and killing one will injure or kill the other.

How to destroy:
Take out the heart, sever the head. Fire or sunlight work as well. Anita prefers to take out the heart with a shotgun or a handgun with expanding rounds, although she's seen a flamethrower used to great effect. Injuries caused by silver are hard to heal, and Holy Water causes pain and scarring.

Next Week:
The time has come. I'm going to read Twilight. Send help.

Interview with the Vampire

Monday, April 5, 2010

I come to this book from a weird position.  I've read plenty of stuff inspired by this series, (Hello World of Darkness,) but never anything actually from it before.  I don't think I was missing much.  As far as I know, Anne Rice is the source of the angsty vampire tradition.  This is definitely the first (and as far as I know only) book I'm going to read in this theme in which the protagonists are all vampires.