The Strain Or The Struggle
I used to think I had good taste in books. I still remember books that I read 10-20 years ago, books that included beats or moments that invested me in a character or a world, the type of little things that made me want to work in that world wherein you create your own stories. I actually had a weird memory today of doing some project in 3rd or 4th class (at age of 8-10 maybe?) wherein we were expected to draw pictures of our future career.
That age feels a little bit too early for that sort of shit when you think about it now, but I definitely remember my amazing (amazingly shit, more like) artwork as being “me” sitting at a computer, writing stories.
Having lived with that goal for the last 20+ years, it takes a lot to piss me off about the world of writing, to find some sort of story that I can and will describe as “poor” or “irritating”; there’s a sense of forgiveness in every such story, perhaps a beat involving a character or a scene that will be worth your time. That was my attitude to stories that prove “disappointing” or “problematic”; I would find something I liked, some sort of salvation.
Somehow, I just couldn’t (and still can’t) find that salvation in The Strain, either the books or the TV show.
I guess the clue is in the name, really?
Some time ago, I started reading the first book (written by director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan), probably at a time before there was talk of TV shows and comic-book adaptations: when I look on Amazon, I’m told that I bought the first book back in 2012, a lifetime ago for me.
What I remember of that read was an interesting story, if a little bit boring, a sort of hard-boiled detective story except the detective was a doctor and the enemies were vampires. So no, maybe not quite hard-boiled detective, but it sort of wants to be, right? I could see that promise in the other work of Guillermo Del Toro; we all know he likes his stereotypes only to twist and manipulate them, usually for a surprisingly poignant emotional pay-off.
Oh, dear god how wrong I was.
I remember making it halfway through the book the first time, and never finishing it. But I couldn’t remember why. Was it just a little bit boring? DId I get distracted by something shiny?
Looking at those dates, I had possibly started on Godhead around then, and maybe I just didn’t want another book in my head?
The book remained unfinished until the TV show caught my attention: Del Toro being involved in the production meant that it would look and appear interesting (and maybe, just maybe, I would gladly just thirst-watch a TV show featuring Corey Stoll. STOP JUDGING ME!). During those summer nights when there’s shit-all else on TV (and Netflix hasn’t quite gotten there shit together yet), who doesn’t love a good binge-watch?
The visual world of The Strain had similar appeal to my reading of the book: there were interesting elements to appreciate, wherein the vampires themselves were different and, because of that, far more interesting than your standardised anglicised Strokerian vampires. Or your True Blood smut, for that matter (don’t get me wrong, I adore the smut.) The vampires of The Strain promised these weirdly interesting visuals, these weird tones of forethought and planning in a vampiric hive-mind that proved grander and far more evil than an animalistic hunger.
This might be a good point to mention that I did my undergrad thesis on vampire fiction, something that I’d completely forgotten about until speaking to one of my class-mates Sarah a few months ago; my thesis was specifically on the book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and touched on the appearance of vampires throughout publishing at times wherein they had appeared as comedic characters, monsters and, much like zombies, an excuse for a writer to utilise a monstrous character to show that maybe it is the people who are the monsters. There was definitely a paragraph in there talking about being both terrified of, and yet embracing the Other. Someone remind me to dig out that 11 year old dissertation, yeah?
For reference, I usually don’t give a shit about those stories in a cultural and sociological sense: I prefer the bigger picture, the gods and the monsters, the origins and the beliefs behind them. I tend to not want to see how society reacts to horrible situations, whether realistically or fictionally monstrous. Instead, I sort of want to enquire as to why and how. After all,there’s enough of that horror in the real world.
I want to escape from psychology, making it my choice to touch on it if I want. Don’t condescend to me that the humans are the monsters: i get it, lads. I really fucking do.
Vampires taking over the world; yeah, that, counts as an escape for me.
Somewhere in my head, I knew that The Strain built towards exactly that escape, and that was a world I was interested in visiting for the sheer fun of it. I expected as much under Del Toro, a director with stories not known for subtlety, but well-known for being visually and emotionally interesting (if not manipulative in getting there.)
I found the TV show a little bit boring. When watching the first and second season, it wasn’t good enough for me to continue watching on a regular basis: each episode proved boring and uninteresting, nearly enough to question my drive to watch the show. But amongst that boredom would be one singular touch that would bring me back for one more episode, usually the promise of a weird world in which taking down the media and the internet was part of the vampires’ grand plan of world domination. There were little touches to the TV show that expanded on things that were just beats in the book: Sean Astin’s character Jim Kent and his cancer-suffering partner created an emotionally appropriate sense of reasoning for his betrayal of a team of colleagues in the TV show, while the book treats him as little more than a glorified receptionist who just answers the wrong question.
Maybe that’s why he effectively betrayed you, Eph? Cos you’re a fucking shit boss, a shit husband, and a pretty shit friend too.
Yep, The Strain manages to create a massive problem in the fact that one of its main characters is just a horrible person.
After two series of the TV show, I committed myself to finishing the series in full: before I would watch season three of the TV show (or four, for that matter) I would re-read the first book, finish it this time, and read the other two books. I’d get my reading back on, I would know what to expect, I would acknowledge those subtle changes between the show and the TV show. And with the knowledge that the final book would bring a significant world-changing event, I’d be excited to see how they acknowledged that on TV.
I don’t want to pretend like the first book was an easy read: while I remembered it being interesting, I felt like it was missing something, a sense of heart or commitment wherein the reader should want to care for these characters. The characters were fairly under-developed in the TV show as well (hard-boiled, remember) but this book was nothing more than beats for them, harsh acknowledgements of characters that hadn’t really been developed in a quest to grow a much larger world.
But, reader, I prevailed.
I did much the same with the second book, The Fall, and finally saw touches of what I was expecting (or wanted) from Del Toro: this book provided hints of a larger hand at play, a mythology with the promise of semi-religious implications. In this book, I saw elements of the characters I had seen in the TV show, touches that had clearly been moved forward to the first season of the TV show to add emotional connection (and keep the viewers watching. Gotta get those ratings in): it wasn’t enough to make me care about these characters’ ultimate fates, but if they were going to die horribly, I could see the emotional or visual beats that the TV show would build for them.
The third book, The NIght Eternal, heald promise for that.
I could write a horrible long paragraph (several paragraphs, actually) about how poor this book was, but that would be a bigger waste of my time than it was reading it. In a series that continues to head-hop through its characters, this book decided to do this to a point that became irritating. I’ve no problems with an omniscient narrator (I’ve written them myself) but that narrator maybe should at least move to another paragraph before jumping into another character’s head.
The Night Eternal read, to me, like the work of a hyperactive child telling the world about their fever-dream, a work that, frustratingly, felt like it was missing any sort of editing. The book promised some of those visually exciting beats that I looked forward to seeing in the TV show (Sodom! Gomorrah! Arch-angels! Yeah, it’s all sort of vaguely religious) but were little more than a few hundred words, words that were thrown away between too much drama thrown between characters that weren’t developed enough to earn that drama.
I finished the books disappointed, frustrated that I had returned to them with little reward. But surely the TV show would provide that, right?
Or maybe not.
I didn’t expect the TV show to embrace the religious elements of the books, but at the same time, I expected there to be some alternative: after all, angels and vampires can still play together without being overly religious, right? The third season of the TV show promised just some of that, the characters spending hours with the same book, the Occido Lumen, that had disclosed fantastic origins in the book. Therein, there was hope and a promise of something more (just like the promotional image below. I mean, come on, look at it!)
Oh, how fucking wrong I was. In watching the fourth season, ten simple episodes, there were at least five of those episodes that encouraged me to completely give up on my viewing, five episodes full of worthless wank, introducing new characters to join our team of heroes, characters with their own issues and origin stories, characters that were ultimately, carelessly killed because they were meaningless and our heroes needed to regroup for the grand finale. (One of them wasn’t even killed, just drove off into the sunset. Before she came back to shoot a bad guy. And then drove off again a breath later.)
And what a (shit) finale. In fairness to the show, it embraced its emotional heart as a story about fathers and sons, a relationship that was used rarely in the books for the sake of a beat. The TV show instead allowed this to have grander implications to the world, something that would have proven interesting if it weren’t for the show wanting to focus on a grander world (and even then, it was weak in acknowledging that.)
After five episodes of complete wank, ensuring that characters were kept separated, we get a speedy reunion that feels rushed and fake because of it. (Yes, I know that a TV show about vampires is entirely fake and fictional, but the emotion should still have some heart.) The McGuffin, a book that is enormously important for two seasons of a TV show, shouldn’t get hidden in an air-con vent for half a season only to be easily collected, and then torn apart by a character in a fever-dream of awareness; similarly, a show dealing with an awkward father/son dynamic at its heart should embrace that rather than forgetting it for the sake of developing those characters as individuals.
As both a show and a book with such promise, The Strain turned itself into one of my greatest disappointments, a world that I was far too willingly ready to invest in only to get burnt and broken. Visuals of the TV show aside (and the original descriptions in the books) remain the only thing that I’ve taken and enjoyed from this world, and were so undependable that they can’t make up for what else the series is lacking.
Yeah, I expected more from Del Toro, but I have the feeling that he wasn’t as involved in this narrative as I thought, proving to be the brains behind its world-building, but with nothing to do with putting the beats together. In fact, The Strain reads more like it was written by someone ashamed of embracing the culture of vampires and horror and far more interested in forcing racial stereotypes, gangsters and alcoholism into an ominous vampire apocalypse.
That’s not what I want from Del Toro.
And it sure as fuck isn’t what I want from my vampires.
Also published on Medium.