Posts Tagged ‘Bram Stoker’

Oh dear.

What a let down.

I was really looking forward to this one. And now I feel just… let down.

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I’ve read some great books recently: emotional, lyrical, beautiful. I wasn’t expecting any of that from The Strain. I was looking forward to an enjoyable, rollicking horror vampire fantasy in the style of del Toro’s Mimic, Hellboy or Splice. If I was lucky, it could have been as powerful as the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth.

It wasn’t either.

It was… lazy. Somehow.

Pedestrian.

The basic plot revolves around the arrival of a mysteriously darkened plane into New York JFK Airport. Once opened, the plane is found to be full of dead passengers and crew. Not a bad premise and I imagine deliberately reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s arrival into Whitby on the crewless Demeter.

We are led through the investigations into this dead plane by Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC epidemiologist. He is our main protagonist and del Toro and Hogan succeed in investing him with almost no personality. There’s a somewhat limp attempt to create a personal back story: he is separated from his wife and fighting to retain partial custody of his son. The writing here was almost embarrassingly pedestrian:

“For a lot of other guys Eph knew, men in a situation similar to his own, their divorce seemed to have been as much from their children as from their wives. Sure, they would talk the talk, how they missed their kids, and how their ex-wives kept subverting their relationship, blah, blah, but the effort never seemed to be there. A weekend with their kids became a weekend out of their new life of freedom. For Eph, these weekends with Zack were his life.”

It seems bizarre that a filmmaker with such a vivid visual imagination felt the need to tell rather than show. The same awkward gauche approach is applied to Eph’s relationship with his almost silent colleague, lover and fellow vampire-hunter, Nora Martinez.

Poor Nora. She was sidelined so far she was barely on the same page.

She was even made to stay home to babysit Zack whilst the men went out to hunt the vampires. She was no Mina Harker!

Just flicking back through the book, nearly every page has ridiculous language. It’s not even tongue in cheek, so-bad-it’s-good… It’s just badly written. I mean, take this as an example:

“Eph too had been turned. Not from human to vampire, but from healer to slayer.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, let’s turn instead to the vampires. I suppose they didn’t sparkle in the sunlight. They had a retractable proboscis-like stinger which darted from the mouth instead of fangs. Why? I imagine the intention was to ramp-up the visceral icky-factor. But, again, the ready appellation of stinger was applied and all the descriptive power dissipated. It could have – should have – been a depiction from a nightmare, dripping, oozing, moist and phallic… But it became just a stinger.

The physiology of the vampire was explained in tedious detail: blood worms transmitted the virus which converted the human physiology into a vampiric one. Cancerous growths on the organs take over and subvert them. After a day and a night, those bitten become stumbling new-born vampires. They have more in common with zombies than vampires: uncoordinated, shuffling and rather easy to kill.

And, seriously, worms?

It felt almost as if del Toro and Hogan didn’t agree on how to portray the vampires. Are they supernatural deriving from the blood of an Archangel? Are they infected with parasitic worms? Are they infected with a virus? It just feels messy. There is patently a larger story than is contained in this novel and it may be that these confusions are resolved later. But I’m not sure that I’m prepared to give my time to those books to find out.

A number of reviews on Goodreads compare this favourably with The Passage by Justin Cronin. That, I don’t see. The Passage was a wonderful, vivid and mythic reinvention of the vampire. The Strain Is everything I worried The Passage might be: dull, tedious in its violence, superficial in its characterisation and pedestrian in its language.

There is a TV show of the book.

I’m not inclined to watch.

Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.

After reading a couple of extremely well-written, moving but rather serious books, picking up The Bloody Red Baron was intended to be a welcome piece of light relief: a bit of fun vampiric horror.

Kim Newman takes up the reigns of his alternate history some thirty years after the events in the previous Anno Dracula. Having fled from England in the conclusion of that book – as a result of Charles Beauregard’s effective device of giving the enslaved Queen Victoria the knife with which to kill herself and alienate Dracula from his claim on her throne – Dracula has ingratiated himself as Graf Dracula in Germany and taken over the persecution of World War One.

One of the pleasures of the book was putting together the pieces between the previous book and the current one with Beauregard as the rock around which both novels revolve. In this novel, as he staunchly refuses offers to be turned he appears to be moulding one Edwin Winthrope as a successor.

One regrettable loss was that Genevieve Dieudonne did not make any re-appearance here having been parcelled off to California; her role taken up by Kate Reed who had been somewhat underused in Anno Dracula. Although not as underused as in the original Dracula: Stoker managed to write her out compeltely! Reed – whilst still a vampire – is a new-born one and therefore fails to bring the mystique, majesty and mystery of Dieudonne who can state to Dracula the Prince Consort himself that “Impaler, I have no equal”.

Another pleasure is recognising the references and intertextuality that abound in Newman’s fiction: vampires from book and film stalk his pages from Count Orlok to Lord Ruthven to Caleb Croft (and fortunately no Cullens); but being further from the 1890s, for me, the references were less well-loved, less tender, less Gothic and more historical: Biggles, Mata Hari, Ten Brincken and Doctor Moreau.

One character who I simply did not like and did not understand his role in the novel was Poe: ostensibly drafted in to compile the Red Baron’s biography he just seemed to float about as an observer neither affecting nor influencing anything. The character of the Baron was fascinating: cold, detatched, bound in layers of emotional armour which I was hoping Poe would be able to peel away… but it seemed that, just as something human was being unearthed in him, the novel ended.

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This novel pits the plucky Allied airmen and airvampires of Condor Squadron against the eponymous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen and his demonic Jagdgeschwader Eins. And demonic is probably the right adjective here: Newman’s vampires are full-blooded nightmarish creatures, not the sparkly effete fairies of our post-Twilight world!

Whilst most vampires in the novel are broadly human in shape and size, Newman delights in the shapeshifting ability that the Dracula bloodline has and grows his JG1 into enormous bat-winged creatures the size of aircraft with guns strapped onto their flesh. As Newman put it:

a prehistoric monster with twentieth-century guns.

And these are not the most mostrous vampires: Isolde is a vampire mentioned briefly who as a performer in Paris presents a remarkably unattractive striptease, slicing through a leotard with a knife and then continuing to slice through her own flesh and to flail herself for her audience night after night. Newman delights in the description of her

exposed muscles [which] bunched and smoothed…bones visible in wet meat… arteries [which] stood out, transparent tubes filled with rushing blood

She becomes a recurrent image in the novel, memories of her returning to haunt Winthrope throughout and can be seen as a metaphor perhaps for the war itself. And the book is very strongly anti-war in its message: whilst there are individual acts of bravery and even heroism on both sides, the war across Europe created monsters of all involved. At its most literal level. In fact, as rather civilised and sympathetic vampires abound in the novel, the greatest difficulty Newman faced in the book may have been how to make the vampire more monstrous to his readers.

But it is not just the vampires who are the monsters here. Another very briefly seen vampire is an American one who – nameless – is seen disintegrating into mist in order to infiltrate a tank and, less than a page later is hit by a flame thrower and

centuries of unchronicled life were extinguished in an uncaring instant, blasted to sparkling shreds by brute modernity.

What this novel lacked was the overview that Anno Dracula had: Dracula there was present, ominous and contagious; in this sequel, he was distant and almost absent, his activities reported but not seen. There was no final standoff. No climax.

All in all, a good well-written and surprisingly thoughtful romp through Newman’s alternative World War 1. Certainly worth a read – as is any book in which Private Charles Godfrey from Dad’s Army appears!

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My teeth grated together in horror as soon as I listened to this: “World War Zee by Max Brooks!” intoned the narrator. “Zee”? “Zee“?! No!! World War Zed!

Despite that, this was a brilliant book to listen to as an audiobook: it is formed from interviews with various survivors of the war against the undead. Z for zombies. Because of the episodic nature of the narrative, it was perfect to listen to one or two interviews on the way to or from work.

And some of the voice acting here was brilliant: more dramatisation perhaps than audiobook. The feral child who recalled the ragged (stertorous perhaps, stealing Bram Stoker’s word) breathing of the zombies as they attacked her family was particularly effective. As was the pilot who was shot down. And the family forced to trade goods for human meat when their daughter is ill, seen through the eyes of her older sister.

The problem is that the stories and accounts are all – more or less – effective. But fairly repetitive.

I missed having continuity. When I had invested in the characters for a while, I wanted to know how they dealt with the later parts of the war.

Episodic narratives: excellent for audiobooks listened to in the car; poor for allowing investment in characters.

I am wondering whether it is possible to create a spoiler here. Zombies rise in China. That’s chapter one. The blurb would tell anyone that. Not a spoiler. Through a combination of idiocy, greed and corruption, the virus spreads across the world through human migration, organ and people trafficking. World War Z? No spoiler there! Zombies eat lots of people. The army is ill prepared (who would be?) and fail spectacularly to protect the world. People fight back. America saves the world.

Yes.

America saves the world.

The US President makes a speech. And everything gets better.

Imagine Abraham Lincoln crossed with Bill Pullman in Independence Day.

It is terribly Americocentric. Yankiecentric. There are many other countries and nationalities interviewed but they are all sidelined by the U S of A. China originated the virus. Russia is corrupt and dishonest. England is romanticised to Disneyesque proportions: Her Majesty refused to leave London and inspired us the populace. God bless her!

I was heading towards the four / five star area with this book when I began listening to it. But I think in retrospect that was due to the quality of the voice acting and the coincidence of the narrative structure with my listening habits. On reflection, if I were asked to rate it out of five, I’d maybe say 3.5 stars.