Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's in the Blood

Vampirism is almost as flexible a metaphor as Zombies can be. Vampires have represented teen alienation, addiction, class elitism and of course sex. Most recently legions of enthralled teenage girls have utterly internalized getting bit by a vampire as corresponding exactly with 'losing it' in a series of rather dim novels and now movies.

But the correlation at the heart of the myth and implicit in Dracula, the Ur text of the genre, is vampirism as disease.

In Stoker's Dracula, Vampirism is a blood born taint being fought by science. The supernatural element is of course present, but as others have observed its really a book about Syphilis. In Victorian England before antibiotics drove a stake into it, Syphilis was what AIDS was until recently; an incurable, barely treatable blood disease. Nice people didn't talk about it, it was spread by 'beastly' behavior and the sufferers would die slowly and grotesquely being marred with ugly stigmatizing sores and wasting away and going mad as the disease ate at their brains.

In that context, Bram Stoker's Dracula with its emphasis on blood borne evil and modern (for the time) medical methods like transfusions becomes a very different beast than it is to modern readers.

Nosferatu the first unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's tale made the disease metaphor explicit. The vampire is a horrific deformed creature with rat like teeth bringing plague and swarms of vermin with him as he invades the comfortable reality of modern Hamburg.

And now film-maker Guillermo Del Toro and co-author Chuck Hogan make the disease metaphor explicit again with the first in their new trilogy of novels The Strain.

The hero is a doctor for the Center for Disease Control brought in to investigate a mysterious plague that has wiped out an entire airplane full of passengers - or has it? The medical mystery element is played well, but the underlying monstrous evil of the vampire begins to unfurl as the story goes on. Disease becomes unearthly evil gradually but utterly.

In this age of SARS and H1N1 and the world wide unease that we are due for something makes The Strain as timely and unsettling as any horror novel you've ever read. The fact is that a deadly killer flu strain seems to hit the world every 4 decades or so - and the last one hit us in the 60's. If SARS or H1N1 aren't it that doesn't mean it isn't coming.

The airplane opening in The Strain is a reminder that in our modern globalized world, the next killer virus could be burning in the bloodstreams of the worlds capitals for days or weeks before we even realized what was happening to us. This is a modern unease that The Strain captures very well.

Del Toro, of course, is the film-maker responsible for Pans Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone and the Hellboy movies among others. He's currently in New Zealand working on the Hobbit with Peter Jackson. If you've seen and enjoyed any of these films - and enjoying them pretty much goes hand in hand with seeing them - then you will love The Strain. I'm looking forward avidly to the next book in the series, and after reading it I think you will be too.

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