“Once upon a time,” said Abraham Setrakian’s grandmother, “there was a giant.”
Young Abraham’s eyes brightened, and immediately the cabbage borscht in the wooden bowl got tastier, or at least less garlicky. He was a pale boy, underweight and sickly. His grandmother, intent on fattening him, sat across from him while he ate his soup, entertaining him by spinning him a yarn.
A bubbeh meiseh, a “grandmother’s story.” A fairy tale. A legend.
“He was the son of a Polish nobleman. And his name was Jusef Sardu. Master Sardu stood taller than any other man. Taller than any roof in the village. He had to bow deeply to enter any door. But his great height, it was a burden. A disease of birth, not a blessing. The young man suffered. His muscles lacked the strength to support his long, heavy bones. At times it was a struggle for him just to walk. He used a cane, a tall stick – taller than you – with a silver handle carved into the shape of a wolf’s head, which was the family crest.”
“Yes, Bubbeh?” said Abraham, between spoonfuls.
“This was his lot in life, and it taught him humility, which is a rare thing indeed for a nobleman to possess. He had so much compassion – for the poor, for the hardworking, for the sick. He was especially dear to the children of the village, and his great, deep pockets – the size of turnip sacks – bulged with trinkets and sweets. He had not much of a childhood himself, matching his father’s height at the age of eight, and surpassing him by a head at age nine. His frailty and great size were a secret source of shame to his father. But Master Sardu truly was a gentle giant, and much beloved by his people. It was said of him that Master Sardu looked down on everyone, yet looked down on no one.” (pp. 1-2)
Spoiler warning: minor plot details discussed below.
So begins The Strain, a 2009 vampire novel co-authored by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and novelist Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves: A Novel). Set in present-day New York City, the story follows Ephraim Goodweather – an epidemiologist with the CDC – as he races to stop the spread of an virus that essentially hijacks its host body, transforming human to vampire. (Nonhuman animals appear not to be affected, though this doesn’t preclude their consumption by vampires. Spoiler warning: the dog gets it!)
Transmitted via the exchange of bodily fluids (usually in the form of a “brutal” feeding frenzy as opposed to a more sophisticated and sexy neck bite), the virus is as old as the seven vampires – the Ancients – who are spread out among the “Old” and “New” Worlds. Kept under wraps by a tenuous truce between the Ancients for centuries, the virus is about to be unleashed upon humanity by a renegade vampire – the Dark One, Master, Sardu, The Thing – with the help of one especially evil, ambitious and self-involved human. (A billionaire, natch.)
Our hero “Eph” is accompanied by fellow CDC scientist Nora Martinez, along with a rag-tag team of unlikely experts, namely: Vasily Fet, an exterminator working for the City of New York and Abraham Setrakian, an elderly pawnshop owner and Holocaust survivor who has spent much of his life in pursuit of the Dark One.
I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, so I won’t go any further into plot details than this. One rave featured on the back cover describes it as “Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton”; I don’t know about Crichton, but if you’re a fan of Stephen King and/or modern-day vampire stories, you’ll love The Strain. Nor can I offer a comprehensive look at what I’ll call the story’s “animal ethics,” as The Strain is the first part of a trilogy. (I’m still waiting for a copy of The Fall to become available at my public library, and Eternal Night won’t be released for several more months.) I would, however, like to discuss several specific passages and plot details.
1. You and me baby, ain’t nothing but mammals.
One odd piece of minutiae involves Eph’s craving for cow’s milk. A recovering alcoholic, Eph has “replaced” his addiction to liquor with a whole milk habit. Given that he’s now hunting a creature who also drinks animal fluids, this juxtaposition leads to an interesting realization for Eph:
The third-floor office door was open when they got there, and Barnes was conferring with a plainclothes man who identified himself as an FBI special agent. “Everett,” said Eph, relieved to find him personally involved. “Your timing is perfect. Just the man I wanted to see.” He moved to a small refrigerator near the door. Test tubes clinked as he reached for a quart of whole milk, uncapping it and drinking it down fast. He needed the calcium the same way he had once needed booze. We trade our dependencies, he realized. For instance, just last week Eph had been fully dependent upon the laws of science and nature. Now his fix was silver swords and ultraviolet light.
He brought the half-empty bottle away from his lips with the realization that he had just slaked his thirst with the product of another mammal. (pp. 269-270)
(Nevermind that the calcium-milk-bone density linkage is so much misleading propaganda perpetuated by the dairy industry.)
In a happier tale, the above passage might represent Eph’s vegan lightbulb moment – but no such luck here (at least not in Book One, anyway). Eph is shown chugging down cow’s milk several times throughout the book, both before and after this excerpt. As far as I know, neither Del Toro nor Hogan are vegan or vegetarian; this, coupled with the fact that the theme of animal exploitation is not revisited throughout the rest of The Strain, makes the recognition of these parallel oppressions rather strange and out of place indeed.
Actually, no, not parallel – not perfectly so, anyway. Whereas the vampires require human blood in order to survive, the enslavement, torture, murder and consumption of nonhuman animals for their flesh and secretions by humans is primarily driven by want as opposed to need. It is a choice, a luxury, a convenience and preference. For many humans, the exploitation of nonhumans is not a matter of survival. (In fact, quite the opposite: our treatment of nonumans is destroying planet earth, our home. In whole or part, animal exploitation will be humanity’s downfall. That is, unless the vampires get us first!) In this way, we are worse – more “savage” and murderous – than the vampiric villains of The Strain. (Although, it should be noted, the planned spread of the vampire virus – and the exponential violence in which it results – represents a choice freely made by vampire and man.)
2. Nazi Vampires from the Pit of Hell!
I mentioned earlier that Abraham Setrakian and the Dark One have a bit of a “history.” Abraham first encountered the vampire when he was an eighteen-year-old young man – a prisoner in the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka. Under the cover of night, the Dark One would visit the camp, feasting on the dying bodies of the sick and elderly prisoners, of which there were many. Come morning, the deaths would be attributed to age or disease; the corpses, already numerous, were simply tossed into fiery pits without a second glance. Perpetrated by humans, the horrors of the Holocaust allowed the Dark One to carry on unnoticed.
Except by Abraham, who woke one night to find the Dark One consuming a fellow captive. Though he was powerless to stop the atrocities wrought by his Nazi oppressors, Abraham vowed to slay the vampire. For weeks, he slowly crafted a silver-tipped spear which he kept hidden behind his bed; biding his time, he observed the Dark One, noting his habits and routines. On many occasions, Abraham silently watched as the vampire drained the life from his fellow inmates; his friends and kin.
When his chance finally did come, Abraham was defeated by the ancient vampire:
Setrakian made his move then, but the silver tip of the stake made a tiny scraping noise, revealing its presence a mere instant before it flew toward The Thing’s heart.
But that instant was enough. The Thing uncoiled its claw and stopped the weapon an inch from its own chest. […]
“Abraham Setrakian,” it purred. “A name so soft, so sweet, for a boy so full of spirit…” It moved close to his face. “But why destroy me, boy? Why am I so deserving of your wrath, when around you you find even more death in my absence. I am not the monster here. It is God. Your God and mine, the absent Father who left us all so long ago…In your eyes I see what you fear most, young Abraham, and it is not me…it is the pit. So now you shall see what happens when I feed you to it and God does nothing to stop it.”
And then, with a brutal cracking noise, The Thing shattered the bones in the hands of young Abraham. (p. 179)
A skilled carpenter, Abraham “earned” his continued existence through manual labor at Treblinka. With broken hands, Abraham was as good as dead. And yet, the vampire only destroyed hands – a cruel and heartless act, to be sure – but it was at the hands of men that Abraham’s life would be – was, in many ways – destroyed.
Nonhuman animals who commit acts of violence against humans are oftentimes sentenced to death for their “sins,” even as we dismiss them as mindless beasts, acting out of pure instinct and nothing more. Meanwhile, we slaughter them (and one another) by the billions, and chalk it up to God, nature, or the economy; “might makes right,” “the cycle of life,” and all that jazz. In the animal kingdom, it is humans who are the beasts. The Thing needed human blood to survive; the Nazis gave him a river, gushing red with hatred, intolerance and oppression.
3. Rest in Peace, Gertie and Pap. You deserved better.
The dog people in the audience will be especially disturbed by the story of Gertie and Pap. Granted, this is kind of the point – many horror stories begin with the slaughter of a lovable “pet” or other cute and fuzzy wuzzy animal; when playing to an audience of self-proclaimed “animal lovers,” is there any surer way to score a such a visceral reaction? – but I’m referring to their lives as well as to the gruesome manner of their deaths.
“Belonging” to one of the “first generation” vampires, Ansel Barbour, these Saint Bernard dogs were devoured by their “owner” as he desperately fought the process of “turning” (i.e., into a full-blown vampire, as evidenced by the virus’s complete control of its host body). It’s a sad and disgusting scene, but one which any horror aficionado will see coming from a mile away.
Prior to consuming Gertie and Pap, Ansel sent his wife Ann-Marie away with their children. Afterward, he cleaned himself and the house up as best he could and then promptly locked himself in the shed so that he’d be unable to similarly attack and kill his human family. Using an extra dog collar and leash, Ansel chained himself to a pole set into a bed of concrete in the shed, which he’d erected several years prior in order to prevent Gertie and Pap from wandering out of the yard at night. That’s right, folks: rather than fence in their yard or bring the dogs into the house at night (or preferably both), Ansel and Ann-Marie opted to chain them up in a shed. In New York state. Presumably, in the winter as well as summer seasons.
Despite this cruelty, husband and wife are depicted as loving, devoted “pet owners.” At one point, the narration indicates that Ann-Marie considered the dogs “part of the family” (I’m paraphrasing; past tense because it’s postmortem). After killing Gertie and Pap, Ansel mourns their deaths in his moments of lucidity. Ann-Marie takes it upon herself to bury Gertie and Pap in the backyard, and it’s all she can do to keep from breaking down when passing by their graves.
When a cranky, nosy neighbor comes to inquire about the strange noises emanating from the shed – assuming that one or both of the dogs is ill and should be “put down” and/or disciplined for misbehaving – Ann-Marie snaps. The man’s reference to “sparing the rod” reminds Ann-Marie of a recent incident wherein the dogs escaped from the yard and returned with what looked like switch marks all over their bodies. Realizing that the neighbor most likely whipped her trusting, loving, goofy dogs, Ann-Marie invites him to have a look in the shed for himself. The stick he pulls from a nearby tree is little defense against Ansel, now fully turned and starving. She locks the two – human and vampire, prey and predator – into the shabby little building together, and lets nature take its course.
Revenge should taste sweet, and yet this is but an only partially satisfying scene. Had they truly loved their furkids, Ann-Marie and Ansel would have brought dear Gertie and Pap into the comfort and safety of the family home when they still had the chance, particularly after the dogs fell prey to an abuser. If an unidentified neighbor beats your dogs, you don’t leave them outside at night, chained up, alone, and defenseless; you bring them in the house, asap. Maybe you install some cameras in your yard, but you certainly fence it in, possibly with privacy fencing and iron spikes. You never let them outside unattended. You sure as hell call the fucking cops.
Failing this, you deserve to be mauled by a vampire too.
RIP, Gertie and Pap. Your deaths were inevitable; your lives, regrettable.