When I picked up del Toro’s The Strain, I was ready for some vampire fun and some cool monsters in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth crawling about.
Of course, del Toro and his writing partner Chuck Hogan deliver on the monsters. The Master is especially a fascinating villain, but I didn’t care much for his interactions with the lead Dr. Ephraim Goodweather. The brief moments we had felt bland, generic. Instead, I was far more captivated by Professor Abraham Setrakian and the small snippets of his fight against the Master in the Treblinka extermination camp during the Nazi regime. That was the story that seized me by the throat. I could have read an entire book about Abraham’s struggle in that camp, flanked by human and vampiric monsters alike. Furthermore, the one solid interaction that Abraham had with the Master worked.
The small moment of these two – Abraham’s attempt to slay the Master, and the Master breaking his hands in return – felt like the birth of a true hero/villain dynamic. It was Javert and Valjean meeting at Fantine’s deathbed in Les Misérables. It was the duel of Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. It was the story that I wanted to read.
It was the story that was merely a frame for Ephraim’s, and I truly believe that the book suffered for it.
A year later, I had to select a novel from the genre of Women Literature for a university course. I was not looking forward to this assignment. Women Literature was rarely my genre and of course being a naysayer, I held tightly to the 90% of Sturgeon’s Law. There was no way I was going to find a novel that would capture my interest.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult proved me so wrong (That happens a lot when I step out of my genre box. Go figure).
Like The Strain, the story is told in two time periods, the past interlacing with and affecting the future. The past story also revolves around a Jewish protagonist surviving in a concentration camp.
Just as Abraham’s attempt to kill the Master was a way to save his people, so is Minka’s struggle. Within the camp, Minka begins to write a Gothic book about a pair of upiór brothers, vampires, terrorizing a town. This book, and her chapters day-by-day, help to keep the other captives going. It also catches the eye of the SS officer in charge of the camp, which is where the story connects to the present-day.
There is power in Minka’s storytelling and in her upiór tale. It comforts her fellow Jewish women, it helps a friend pull through an infection, and it allows her to enter the good graces of the camp’s officer. In a sense, it’s both through and against the upiór that Minka finds the strength to win.
The biggest win that Minka’s tale has over Abraham’s is that it is given much more time and breath to be. It’s not just a framing device – it’s a story on it’s own, even if it’s just half of the book.