Vampires, vampires everywhere…

Somehow I’ve ended up reading a couple of vampire novels recently, something I’d normally avoid like a plague of moaning, groaning, tapping-on-your-window-pane-at-night undead. Vampires, to me, are one of those genre tick-boxes that just don’t tick my box. Particularly when they get caught up in the tired old recombinations game, where you take a slightly tatty genre element and “re-imagine” or “re-invent” it by adding a lame twist. As in, “Yeah, man, it’s vampires, but it’s vampires on the moon…” Or steam-punk vampires, or vampires versus the CIA, or vampires in hoodies, or vampires with sat-navs. I used to get caught up in that sort of game with Doctor Who, thinking up all the monster-related adventures you could squeeze out of those pulpy titles: “We’ve had Destiny of the Daleks, so we’ve got to have Destiny of the Cybermen, and Destiny of the Sontarans, and Destiny of the Ice Warriors, and Destiny of the Wirrn…” But I was eight years old at the time.

Back to vampires. Twilight (I’ve only seen the film, not read the books) seemed to me more X-Men sequel than horror film — more about troubled, “gifted” teenagers whose gift just happens to be called vampirism. I could see how the film would work for teens, but it didn’t quite do it for me. The vampires just weren’t dangerous enough, and it was all a little bit too reassuring. (I never watched Buffy, but I suspect it owes far more to Buffy than Dracula.) Having said that, there are a few vampire novels I like — Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (covered on this blog some while back), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (the first horror novel I ever read), Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and the first half of Stoker’s Dracula (the second half just devolves into rather dull action-adventure). Now I’m going to add one of the two I’ve just read to that list. (But don’t strain yourself trying to guess which one. I’m only going to let the right one in.)

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First up is The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read it because of del Toro, who I admire as a spokesman for the fantastic, and because Pan’s Labyrinth is the only film for many an age I got excited about a full year before it came out (just from seeing the poster, and reading the title), and it more than lived up to my expectations. Del Toro has dealt with vampires before — sensitively in Cronos, sensationally in Blade II — and it was in the hope I’d get something more on the Cronos side that I read The Strain. But it was Blade II I got. I tried to tell myself the book was probably del Toro’s initial idea, which was then filled out by Hogan in standard “adapt me, Hollywood!” thriller style, complete with manly heroes with troubled marriages and technical descriptions of how to bag an infected corpse, but from the interviews that surrounded the book’s release, it seems the whole thing is as much del Toro’s fault as Hogan’s.

The Strain (whose title got me off on the wrong foot by reminding me a little too much of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song of the same name, which is about constipation) “updates” the vampire story by (a) taking it to America and (b) providing a scientific explanation of vampirism by having it be the result of a parasitic infection. But both (a) and (b) have been done before, and much better, in I am Legend (which does a lot more with its ideas, besides). The trouble with making vampirism just a plague is you end up with hordes of dumb, blood-hungry vampires roaming the streets, which means you’re really writing about zombies, not vampires. And zombies are, when it comes down to it, a lot less interesting than vampires. Why? Because they’re dumb, and all they do is roam the streets hungering for blood. They’re video game fodder. (I am Legend escapes this dead end because its appeal, for me, is more from it being a Last Man on Earth book, a disaster novel in the Day of the Triffids or War of the Worlds mold, and not what I’d think of as primarily a vampire book.)

What makes vampires interesting, for me, is that as well as being supernatural monsters, they’re human beings. The like us/not like us factor brings out the real power of a monster — monsters only begin to mean something when they’re part human, and it’s monsters with meaning I want. (The exception is when your monster is a pure killing machine, as in the shark from Jaws or the Scott/Giger Alien. It’s this category zombies fall into. (Zombies are dumb, they’ll fall into anything.) But if you’ve got a pure-killing-machine monster, the story has to work on the strength of its human characters. The Strain’s humans have about as much depth as the paper they’re printed on.)

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Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is brilliant. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m dying to.) There’s a brief (and not too successful) attempt in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel to give a scientific explanation for vampirism, but fortunately it’s far enough into the book that it doesn’t matter, and Lindqvist doesn’t try to push it to the point of explaining, for instance, why vampires can’t enter a house till they’re invited, which is (and should stay) a purely supernatural element. The result is that the book’s vampires are weird, dark, and genuinely supernatural — properly disquieting monsters, not merely scientific aberrations.

But what makes the book really work for me is that, as well as being genuine monsters, the vampires are also more human than any others I’ve read about. The basic premise of the book could be couched in those “another twist on the genre” terms I so abhor (“what if there was a vampire, but it was a child“), but simply because the author goes to the bother of creating real characters, and not just out of the victims but out of the vampire itself, the whole thing opens up all sorts of deep, dark possibilities. Right to the end, I had no idea where the book was headed. What was more, it meant the book wasn’t just about another twist on a genre, it was about what all good books should be about — what it means to be human. It’s about childhood, about the way people (normal, non-vampire people) treat each other, and the way they get treated by the world, about the difficulty of finding true friendship amidst all this bleakness, and the lengths people will go to hold onto such friendship should it be found. The presence of a vampire just heightens the drama that was already there — gives it that extra spark and spice, which is what good fantasy does best, raising a story about real human beings that little bit beyond where normal fiction can go.

I was glued to Let the Right One In, and it ended too quickly. The Strain, on the other hand — well, let’s just say I skipped bits.