Posts Tagged ‘vampire’

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Right,  firstly an apology in advance: this is my first post after changing phones and the larger screen of the Galaxy S6 and different spacing on the keyboard is enough to fox my little mind. And fingers. It doesn’t take much to fox either. So,  as I saw,  apologies for any typos… well,  more than usual!

Anyway,  onto Storm Front,  the first of the Dresden Files, which numerous people I know have been raving about,  and Jim Butcher’s debut novel.

The concept is no longer original – but it is fifteen years old now! Set in Chicago, Dresden is a wizard working as both a private investigator and a consultant for Karrin Murphy investigating crimes which touch on the supernatural world which lurks beneath our own. Chicago has its own drug and gang crime issues,  primarily in this novel headed by Gentleman Johnny Marconi, reminiscent of the mobs of Gotham City. The supernatural world is itself policed by Wardens and The White Council enforcing their own laws – which are far more important than ours,  hence the fact that they are Laws – and has its own rogue and dark elements. And vampires, fairies and demons and no doubt other creatures for future novels.

All of these elements become involved in a double murder in which two people have their hearts ripped out of their chests by dark magic.

There are all sorts of influences on Butcher which are pretty apparent: Batman is explicitly referenced but there’s a whole literary lineage going back to Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade and Philips Marlowe. Dresden is in that line of hardboiled detectives; however, Butcher is not a writer of the same calibre as Hammett, Chandler or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book. It had a cracking pace and was decently plotted. But the writing struck me as a tad juvenile in places, a little clichéd and familiar, and his treatment of women seemed perhaps a century out of date. Rarely did he let a description of a woman go without a sensual adverb or adjective slipping in. Women seemed to consist mainly of legs (generally shapely), lips  (usually full and plump), and breasts. The depiction of Bianca St Claire, the vampire madame whose employee had been one of the first victims in the book, was a case in point. Most writers whose vampires who transform tend to focus on teeth or eyes and the facial changes. Butcher lingered uncomfortably long on the changes in her breasts as she transformed into her true vampiric form.

The plotting was also a tad obvious: two apparently separate cases opened in the first chapter. A couple of potions were brewed about half way through. Not a subplot was left unintegral to the main plot; not a potion was brewed that was not required elsewhere.

Was it easy to anticipate who the antagonist Shadowman was? Pretty much so.

Now, that said, it was a decent quick read: 499 pages which you can whip through in a week. It was pretty fun and Dresden – struggling with the temptation of reverting to dark magics himself – has potential as a protagonist. At a personal level, I’ve had a really tough couple of weeks and this novel was a solid escape from that. I’ve also had trouble getting into the various things I’ve been reading recently (personally I blame Kate Atkinson: after reading Life After Life even this year’s Man Booker List haven’t gripped me like they usually do) and something with no pretensions to anything other than a fun genre fiction romp hit the spot well this week.

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.

I’m a sensitive soul, me.

I like books and words; I wear my heart on my sleeve. I cringe at the sight of gore and blood.

So why have I been immersing myself in gore recently? The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin and now Feed, book one of the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant.

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Zombies are the new vampires with World War Z hitting the cinemas and this book’s been kicking about in my ‘mildly intrigued’ sub-pile of my ‘to-be-read’ lists on my e-reader.

What was it that intrigued me? It’s hard to say: the cover was pretty cool; I liked the ambiguity of the title referring to the appetite of the zombies and to the blogging news feeds that the book revolves around. Moreover, though, the biggest intrigue derived here (as it did with Brooks’ World War Z) from a single question:

“What on earth do you do with zombies once you’ve got them?”

Now, I don’t mean that in a survivalist sever-the-brain-stem kind of way.

Narratively, what do you do with zombies once the visceral reveal has happened? There’s no suave temptation that drips from the pores of every non-Twilight vampire; there’s no cunning intelligence; there’s no eternal conflict between the animal and civilised, the id and the superego, epitomised by the werewolf or Jekyll and Hyde. Once you have revealed your zombie and the audience has received it’s visceral thrill or shock, they’re actually a pretty rubbish antagonist. By definition.

Max Brooks ramped up the tension by scale and the sheer weight of numbers.

Grant doesn’t.

Unlike Brooks, Feed shows little interest in rise of the zombies. It’s events take place a generation post-Rising. The dead rose. The living adapted. Life continued.

The skill in this novel is in the imagining of how our world might adapt to cope with a threat such as zombies. How would behaviours change? How would politics alter? How would the media mutate itself? What variations would creep into our lives if something horrific occurred? How would terror of the living dead be responded to? Or be taken advantage of?

Is it too great a leap to see parallels between the post-zombie world, populated by people whose fears lead them to isolate themselves and exclude anyone else, with a world coming to terms with a War on Terror? Or a world in the grip of a fear of the incurable AIDS virus?

The rise of the blogger is the key feature of Grant’s world: where traditional print media failed to respond to the rise of the undead, blogs recognised, recorded and reported on it thereby lifting their status to that of ‘true’ journalism. Again, the parallels with The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and a whole host of other ‘grass roots’ movements connecting through Twitter and the blogosphere feels credible. In Grant’s world, bloggers are divided into three categories: newsies such as the first-person narrator Georgia Mason, who report on the news; Irwins, such as her adoptive brother Shaun, who record their field exploits and encounters with the undead for entertainment value as much as education; and fictionals such as the Masons’ partner Buffy who appear to write rather poor doggerel to make us all feel better. Oh and Buffy is also a whizzy techno-geek. This little trio has it all therefore: a driven and ethical reporter backed up by her action-hero brother and nerd friend. And they drive around in a van. Solving mysteries.

I did spend half the book expecting Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to arrive!

The trio manage to secure a job reporting on the campaign of a Senator Ryman in the American Primaries and then Presidential elections. Shady things happen. Tragedies unveil themselves. A conspiracy is uncovered.

I am generally a little slapdash with spoiler alerts: it is possible to enjoy a journey even if you already know the destination. Especially if the journey is a good one with nice scenery. With books, I’m more interested in the characters and writing than I am with plot and events. But here, I am going to tread carefully: there are events in the book which do warrant coming to fresh and being ambushed by.

It’s not the uncovering of the conspiracy: Grant red flags the culprit pretty obviously!

And let’s face it, the writing here is not great literary prose that has much merit in its own right. To continue the journey metaphor, it’s like driving through the flat fenlands of Norfolk. Pretty flat. Nor do the characters work terribly well for me: they are pretty two-dimensional at times with the exception of George, our narrator.

So I’m going to let you enjoy the few way markers you come across without spoiling them!

So, to return to my question: what do you do with a zombie? Grant’s answer seems to be, very broadly, ‘get over it’. This is a book set in a world in which zombies live… No… Inhabit… No … Exist? But it is not a zombie book: our antagonist is not a zombie; there are perhaps two or three zombie attacks seen in the book. It is, essentially a political thriller. With a handful of zombies.

One thing I did like – and which I suspect might have put other readers off – is the nature of the virus that gave rise to the zombie plague. Apparently Grant objected to the “It’s a virus” plot device (a devil ex machina?) to explain zombies and we are treated to a fair amount of detail about the mechanics and vectors involved. I liked that part. It was, again, credible.

In short then… The good points were: some interesting world building with a fair amount of social parallels – enough to start you thinking; a string sense of the mechanics of the virus; a playful reverence of existing zombie lore and movies; decent, if slightly two dimensional, characters; some strong plot twists and pretty decent and contemplative pacing (I’m afraid the somewhat frenetic pacing of some plot-driven novels gives me a headache!)

Bad points included: competent but uninspiring writing; a lack of depth to many characters; a slightly obvious villain (though, as book one of three, I suspect this will develop); and, in my electronic version for reasons I cannot fathom, an absence of apostrophes and speech marks. In a writing style that often interposes lengthy narrative into dialogue before returning to speech mid paragraph, that became really annoying really quickly.

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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.