Inside the mind of a vampire lover
The director of The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro, settles down at his favourite Wellington cafe to talk to Tom Cardy about bringing his debut novel to life.
When Guillermo del Toro was 13, he wrote a short story about a girl who lives near a graveyard. Lightning wakes her one night. She looks out of her bedroom window and sees an animated corpse on the street staring back at her.
The girl goes missing and is later found inside a coffin in the cemetery, the corpse's arms wrapped around her.
In del Toro's debut novel The Strain, released next week, there's a scene where the young son of one of the protagonists wakes up and peeks out of his bedroom window. He sees a corpse-like naked man stumbling down the street. The man stops and stares up at the boy. Their eyes lock.
It's just one of many chilling scenes in The Strain, co-written with mystery thriller writer Chuck Hogan, that have their roots in del Toro's imagination and life. The idea for the short story - "my creative writing teacher hated it" - came from staring out of the window of his own bedroom at night. The street was empty, so his imagination took over.
Some of del Toro's ideas are more prosaic. One of the heroes of The Strain, Dr Ephraim Goodweather, loves nothing more than cold milk, which he knocks back by the carton.
When del Toro arrives for the interview at one of his favourite Wellington cafes, he not only orders a cup of coffee, but a glass of milk. Halfway through, he orders a second glass.
De Toro has been in Wellington for the past eight months preparing to direct The Hobbit. For those who have followed the Mexican film-maker's career - including Hellboy and the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth - it isn't surprising that he imagines walking corpses.
The idea for the Pan-like creature in Pan's Labyrinth came from a moment of "lucid dreaming" when he was seven or eight, he says. He imagined seeing a faun, a human hand and a goat leg.
Then there's his recurrent nightmare: "Zombies are chasing me up the stairs, then I jump awake."
But The Strain isn't giving del Toro nightmares. Instead it's the pleasure of finally being able to tell the story - in trilogy form - of a concept that he's had for several years.
Del Toro loves vampires. They were central to his feature debut Cronos and Blade II. He has an enormous collection of vampire fiction and lore - including first editions.
In The Strain, essentially a supernatural thriller about vampires, the blood- suckers are deliberately alien and horrific. They are nothing like the suave Dracula or attractive people in the film Twilight or television series True Blood.
"People who know only contemporary vampire fiction are just used to them being these goth, decadent romantic heroes. That's one side of it and I find it valid and it's great literature - but that's not the things I read as a kid," del Toro says.
His vampires don't have fangs. Instead long, tongue-like "stingers" shoot out of their mouths, slash a victim's neck, then paralyse them as they're sucked dry of blood.
Victims turn into vampires courtesy of a virus, carried by tiny "blood worms". Their blood turns white. The old standbys of crucifix, garlic or wooden stake aren't much use. But they can be killed by sunlight or the slash of a silver sword.
There's also a hierarchy and history to the creatures, one that will be further explained in each book.
The Strain opens with a passenger jet from Berlin landing in New York, then stalling and going dark on the runway. Most of the crew and the passengers are dead. The presumption is that it's a disease or terrorist attack, which brings in Dr Goodweather, who heads a disease control team.
The investigation, autopsies and details of vampire biology and pathology give The Strain a nail-biting CSI feel.
Del Toro's original idea wasn't a trilogy. Three years ago he envisaged it as television mini-series.
"I was watching [crime drama] The Wire back then and I loved it. I asked my manager, 'Is there any way I could try and explore TV?' and I got a deal at Fox. First thing I pitched them is a 747 stopping in the middle of a runway. They loved it."
Del Toro then wrote details about each character and the plot for at least three seasons. "I [then] met with the head of TV department and he said, 'We want to do something with vampires, but we want to do a comedy'."
Needless to say, del Toro was no longer interested.
As if casting for one of his movies, he "auditioned" several writers. He didn't want one who wrote horror, but one who was apt at "factual, procedural stuff". He chose Hogan.
Del Toro says The Strain does make demands on readers. "It's very unexpected for an audience to guess where we're going. I wanted to make the first book 'biology'. The second book is essentially the end of biology and the beginning of the spiritual origin of vampires. The third book is the mythical dimension of those vampires re-explained.
"They've never been explained in those terms before."
* The Strain, published by Harper Collins ($36.99) will be released on Queen's Birthday.
The Dominion Post