Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain and the Importance of Research

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!]

Although novels are fiction, research is an important part in the process of making the story of the novel both probable and plausible. The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is an example of how authors can simultaneously succeed and fail when researching a novel.

Let me explain.

81svWyDFCeLThe Strain is the first part of a trilogy about how a vampire virus spreads among humans in North America and brings an end to the world as we know it. The main characters are Ephraim Goodweather, MD and CDC specialist, his colleague Nora Martinez and vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian.

The novel begins with a Boeing 777, which only minutes after landing at JFK Airport in New York becomes stranded on the taxiway, all its systems are shut down and everyone aboard are seemingly dead. In the cargo hold, a mysterious coffin filled with soil is discovered.

For a story such as The Strain to be plausible, the implausible elements—vampires taking over the world—need to be grounded in reality. This is achieved by del Toro and Hogan through extensive research. The set-up of the story—the Boeing 777 landing at JFK and the dead passengers being examined by Ephraim and his team, followed by the autopsy procedures of the Chief Medical Examiners Office in New York—is told in such detail that the text sometimes resembles a technical manual more than it does a novel. For example, for the JFK rescue crew to enter the aircraft, they need to cut a hole in the fuselage. This procedure is described as follows:

All commercial aircraft were constructed with certain “chop-out” areas. The triple seven’s chop out was in the rear fuselage, beneath the tail, between the aft cargo doors on the right side. The LR in Boeing 777-200LR stood for long range, and as a C-market model with a top range exceeding 9,000 nautical miles (nearly 11,000 U.S.) and a fuel capacity of up to 200,000 liters (more than 50,000 gallons) the aircraft had, in addition to the traditional fuel tanks inside the wing bodies, three auxiliary tanks in the rear cargo hold—thus the need for a safe chop-out area. (p. 25)

The tool needed to cut through the chop-out area of the fuselage is described in the  paragraph immediately following:

The maintenance crew was using an Arcair slice pack, an exothermic torch favored for disaster work not only because it was highly portable, but because it was oxygen powered, using no hazardous secondary gases such as acetylene. (p. 25)

The detailed descriptions of tools and procedures continue when the bodies are examined on site and when they are undergoing postmortems. The reader is provided with information on what victims of carbon-monoxide poisoning look like (p. 45), the procedures of so-called “canoeing” during autopsy (p.125) and the treatment of human brains in formaline (p. 125–126). At times, the authors even stop the action to provide an explanation:

Eph searched around wildly for anything that would help him keep this guy away from him, finding only a trephine in a charger on a shelf. A trephine is a surgical instrument with a spinning cylindrical blade generally used for cutting open the human skull during autopsy. The helicopter-type blade whirred to life, and Redfern advanced […].” (p.174)

In summation, del Toro and Hogan seem to have written a well-researched novel in which to place their vampire tale.

Or have they?

Let’s take a look at three instances where in-depth research seems to have been done, but in fact either has been done poorly or not at all.

1) How to remove facial makeup
After reading the detailed accounts provided by the writers, it comes as a surprise when one of the characters, a rock star named Gabriel Bolivar, sits down in his bathroom to remove his makeup and the following description of the procedure is provided:

Bolivar staggered off the bed and back into his bathroom and his makeup case. He sat down on the leather stool and went through his nightly ministrations. The makeup came off—he knew this because he saw it on the tissues—and yet his flesh looked much the same in the mirror. (p. 149)

If the authors had been consistent in their description of procedures, a detailed account of Bolivar’s “nightly ministrations” would have been provided. I am sure a cosmetologist would have loved to have answered any of their questions.

2) A occultation is still an eclipse
Shortly after the Boeing 777 lands at JFK a solar eclipse occurs. This is a total eclipse that lasts several minutes and is crucial to the development of the plot. The authors provide the following explanation (emphasis added by del Toro and Hogan):

The term solar eclipse is in fact a misnomer. An eclipse occurs when one object passes into a shadow cast by another. In a solar eclipse, the moon does not pass into the sun’s shadow, but instead passes between the sun and the earth, obscuring the sun—causing the shadow. The proper term is “occultation.” The moon occults the sun, casting a small shadow onto the surface of the earth. It is not a solar eclipse, but in fact an eclipse of the earth. (p. 77)

Is this true that we all have been calling a fascinating astronomical phenomenon by the wrong name? The answer to that question is both yes and no.

Britannica.com defines an eclipse as a “complete or partial obscuring of a celestial body by another. An eclipse occurs when three celestial objects become aligned.” The encyclopedic entry goes on to explain that there are many different types of eclipses, of which occultation is one. Therefore, “solar eclipse” is not a misnomer and “occultation” is not the only proper term. An occultation is a kind of eclipse. However, when writing a horror story it makes for a good set-up if a word containing the root “occult” can be used as a foreshadowing of what is to come.

3) What did the Romans ever do for the Poles? Absolutely nothing.
Abraham Setrakian is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to hunting the vampire that arrives in New York on the ill-fated Boeing 777. He first encountered the creature at Treblinka when it came to feed off weakened concentrations camp prisoners. Determined to stop the creature, Setrakian starts asking around among the other prisoners.

In the months since the Sardu-Thing’s first visit, Setrakian—obsessed with the notion of defeating such evil—learned as much as he could from other local prisoners about an ancient Roman crypt located somewhere in the outlying forest. There, he was now certain, the Thing had made its lair […]. (p. 177)

During the Treblinka uprising in 1943, Setrakian is one of the prisoners who manages to escape and avoid capture. He immediately sets out to locate the creature’s lair and succeeds.

He had heard of Roman ruins through camp hearsay from native Poles. It took him almost a week of roaming, until one late afternoon, in the dying light of dusk, he found himself at the mossy steps at the top of an ancient rubble. Most of what remained was underground, with only a few overgrown stones visible from the outside. A large pillar stood at the mound of stones. [—] It was also impossible to stand there at the dark mouth of these catacombs and not shudder. (p. 287)

There are several issues that need to be discussed concerning the creature’s lair.

One problem is that del Toro and Hogan can’t seem to decide whether the lair is a “crypt” or a “catacomb.” A crypt is a “vault or subterranean chamber, usually under a church floor.” There is no indication in the text that a church had stood at the site of the lair.  A catacomb, on the other hand, is an underground cemetery and the term is used exclusively for such cemeteries in and around the city of Rome.

But the terms used to described the lair are not the main problem. The main problem is the fact that the lair is described as Roman. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because the Roman Empire never included what is today Poland and the location of the Treblinka concentration camp. The sheer fact that Roman ruins are found in the Polish forest is historically inaccurate.

At its height the Roman Empire reached as far south as North Africa, as far east as present-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, as far west as Spain and as far north as England. In the northeast, the Roman Empire reached to the rivers of the Rhine and the Danube. The Rhine runs through cities such as Strasbourg on the German-French border and Basel in northern Switzerland. The Danube runs through Vienna in Austria, Budapest in Hungary and Belgrade in Serbia.

Roman_Empire_mapMap of the Roman Empire from 510 B.C.E to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Roman_Empire_map.gif

Why del Toro and Hogan decided to make the lair of the creature explicitly Roman, I can’t understand. I am currently reading part two of the trilogy and so far there has been no mentioning of why the lair is of Roman origin, indicating that this particular piece of information is of no consequence to the development of the story. Moreover, the result of this decision is that I, the reader, begin to question everything else they throughout the novel have claimed to be established facts.

On the whole, The Strain is an entertaining read. It’s a fast-paced attention-grabbing adventure that brings back horror to vampire lore, written by two authors who take a keen interest in technology and medical science. However, if you want to come across as a credible storyteller, you can’t research only the things that interest you and ignore those that don’t.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan The Strain (Harper, New York, 2011)
Britannica.com Eclipse
Britannica.com Crypt
Britannica.com Catacomb
Britannica.com Limes
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Treblinka Death Camp Revolt

Note:
Thank you to Ida Östenberg, scholar and researcher of Classical Studies, Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg.
The .gif map of the Roman Empire has been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
The book cover of The Strain has been downloaded from Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

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The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

800px-Flag_of_Belarus.svg
Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

800px-Flag_of_Belarus_(1991-1995).svg
Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

450px-Constitution_of_Belarus
Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Kafka. A German-Speaking Jew from Prague

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is arguably one of Europe’s most fascinating authors. Kafka is rightfully associated with the city of Prague, today the capital city of the Czech Republic. But was Kafka Czech? No, Kafka was a German-speaking Jew from Prague.

Kafka
Franz Kafka
Source: Anonymous

To understand this statement, we must first understand the city of Prague and its history, as well as the region where it is located, Bohemia.

Prague was founded during the second half of the 9th century. During the High Middle Ages, the city flourished as a political and economic center for its surrounding region, Bohemia, or Čechy in Czech and Böhmen in German.

Prague played an important role in Bohemia and Central Europe from the Middle Ages until the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In fact, the Thirty Years’ War is considered to have begun in Prague with what is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a method of execution where the intended victim is thrown out of a window. The name of the this method comes from the Latin word for “window”: fenestra.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Prague Castle (2006)
Source: Wizzard

The Second Defenestration of Prague was the execution of the governors of Bohemia, installed on their posts by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty to subdue Protestantism in Bohemia. The citizens of Prague responded to this policy by defenestrating the Habsburg officials from the windows of the Hradčany, or Prague Castle.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the European continent and Prague’s political and economic success waned. However, new life was breathed into the city during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. When Kafka lived in Prague it was a bustling and modern city at the heart of Europe.

When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague and Bohemia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in 1867 when a constitutional compromise between the Austrian Empire and Hungary was reached. This compromise meant that Hungary would continue to acknowledge the rule of the Austrian emperor, but was autonomous in all political issues except war and foreign relations.

Outside of Hungary, the empire consisted of a not-clearly defined agglomeration of regions called “the kingdoms and lands represented in the [Austrian] Reichrat” or simply “the other Imperial half.” What these different regions had in common was the dynastic claim of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty to which the Austrian royal family belonged. Bohemia and Prague belonged to this other half.

Austria-Hungary1899
Austria-Hungary in 1899. Prague is located at the map coordinates 14:50.

Throughout history, Bohemia had three major population groups: Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Czechs lived in Bohemia because of it being a region within the Slavic cultural and ethnical sphere. Germans lived in Bohemia because of its proximity to German regions such as Bavaria. Jews lived in Bohemia because of the Diaspora, which after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. spread the Jewish population across the world. Jews are known to have lived in Prague since the 970s, with a permanent community established there in the 11th century.

Reading articles, texts, and private correspondence contemporary to Kafka, it becomes evident that these three groups defined themselves as separate from one another. In fact, tensions were at times rife between Germans and Czech nationalists with Jews trying to find a place in the middle while avoiding anti-Semitism from both sides.

During Kafka’s lifetime, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Prague, most of them spoke German and mainly identified with the German-speaking culture. They lived a secularized, mostly bourgeois lifestyle and distanced themselves from Jews living in rural areas further east. Yiddish, the language most often connected to eastern European Jews, was unknown to them. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Prague’s Jewish population consisted of 92,000 people, one of the largest in Europe. 60% of them are estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Prague.

Franz Kafka was born into a wealthy merchant family, where everything centered around the family business. Kafka himself worked as an official at an insurance company and dedicated his spare time to writing, which lead to conflict with other family members. A relentless self-critic, only a handful of his stories were published during his lifetime. Most of Kafka’s works that we know and admire today, were published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s wish to burn all the manuscripts after his death. All of Kafka’s stories were written in German.

Although secularized through his upbringing, Kafka identified himself as a Jew. He became engaged in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Prague and that movement’s discussions on Jewish identity and culture interested him a great deal. He frequented the Yiddish theater whenever such plays were available in Prague and made friends within the theater companies.

Reading Kafka’s works, Jewish folklore and Talmudic discussion techniques jump out off the page. The Jewish sense of humor and the twists and turns of Talmudic discourse lay the foundation of an absurd and unpredictable reading experience. Believe it or not, but the step from Kafka to Mel Brooks is not a big one.

Throughout his life, Kafka lived in Prague, the main city of Bohemia but only a regional capital in the other half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to and identifying with one of the three main ethnic and cultural groups. When he died in Vienna at the age of 40, Prague had been the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, created after the collapse of the empire brought on by World War I, for only six years.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Britannica.com Czechoslovakia
Britannica.com Bohemia
Britannica.com Prague
Jewish Virtual Library Prague
Franz Kafka The Trial (Der Prozess) (New York, 1998)
Reiner Stach Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton & Oxford, 2005)

Note:
The images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.