Vampires these days are sorta lovelorn and wimpy. Not Guillermo del Toro's. His will suck you dry with a stinger-tipped tentacle. It's not really the kind of stuff teen girls want to read. But Del Toro, director of the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth as well as The Devil's Backbone, Blade II and the Hellboy series isn't trying to appeal to the Stephenie Meyer set with his new novel. The first in a trilogy (co-written with author Chuck Hogan), The Strain opens with a plane that lands in New York City, lights off, windows drawn, everyone seemingly dead. Naturally, it gets worse from there. Del Toro spoke to TIME from New Zealand, where he is currently working on the film version of J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit, about bloodsuckers, swine flu and his childhood hero. (See pictures of Hello Kitty at age 35.)
Over the next decade, you've got about five movie projects signed up. How did you find the time to start a trilogy of vampire novels?
I started it actually about four years ago. The idea behind The Strain was to try and marry old Eastern European folklore with an urban procedural feel. Which is very much the way, back in the day, Dracula must have read to contemporary readers. It was a very now, in the moment, modern novel. And I wanted to recapture that a little bit.
Your book literally starts off with the words "Once upon a time." I've read that you have a large collection of fairy tales and there are fairy-tale elements in many of your movies. Why does that type of story appeal to you?
The novel is actually a very young concern in the narrative history of mankind. Fable and fairy tales are much older forms of narrative. Fables and fairy tales have a very primal, raw power. Realism has become an overwhelming force in human narrative. The fable should have as important a place.
You seem to find the practical idea of what a vampire's anatomy might look like particularly fascinating. Not just the idea of what they can do, but also what they look like on the inside. Where does that come from?
When I was a kid, my father bought two encyclopedias for our library. He bought an art encyclopedia and a medical encyclopedia. I read them both eagerly and the idea of art and anatomy and biology became fused into one. Somebody said that the best way to believe in a monster is to find the corpse, the carcass of a monster, because once you see it there, that's proof that they exist. So I'm kind of fabricating this biology as a way to allow people to believe in them.
This idea of vampirism as a virus is similar to the latest version of I Am Legend, which you were supposed to direct at one point.
Yep. Some of the notes about their biology actually came from me going to Warner Bros. to show them my ideas. I found it quite nice that visually the vampires in that movie had some passing similarity to those from my movie Blade II. The way they move, the fact that they all lose their hair and become these pale creatures. (See pictures of vampires in movies.)
We recently saw somewhat of a panic with swine flu. Are viruses the thing that's going to wipe this planet clean, as opposed to nuclear bombs?
It certainly is the one threat that seems to allow us to be irrational about things. A nuclear attack requires a device, it can be intercepted, it can only affect a certain area. There is a logic to the way it spreads. But a virus grows exponentially. Every time it expands, there's a casualty. It's closer to a panic closer, therefore, to a very primal fear.
Now, you've said about this book, and about vampires in general, that you prefer more vicious ones, none of this "Romantic languid young men sucking the necks of beautiful people."
That aspect of vampirism has never attracted me. In Polidori's Vampyre, the beauty of Lord Ruthven who is the vampire in that story the beauty of him is that he's both. He is described as a creature in one scene, and he's also the romantic lead. Those strands will always be intertwined in the common imagination. But I'm attracted much more to the re-animated corpse hungry for life, which is the one that is common to most human mythologies. You can find them in Asia, you can find them in Europe, you can find them in America. (Watch TIME's video "Making Drag Me to Hell More Hellish.")
The Stephenie Meyer books are exactly the opposite of that. They have very attractive young men tenderly sucking the necks of their girlfriends. Why do you think that's popular?
The vampire is the ultimate bad boy. The vampire is the ultimate anti-everything. I haven't read Stephenie Meyer's books; the last encounter I had with the romantic vampire was with Anne Rice, and it was essentially "beautiful people of the night." But the line between attraction and horror is very, very thin. When you see footage of a polar bear walking in the snow, your heart melts. And then seconds later when you see the same polar bear mauling a baby seal, you can be horrified. And I don't see why these aspects of life cannot be reconciled.
Forrest J. Ackerman, the grandfather of horror/fantasy/sci-fi recently died. Much like him, you have a second home, in Los Angeles, almost completely devoted to horror memorabilia. Did you know him well?
He was a huge influence in my life. When I was a kid, I actually wrote him a letter asking him to adopt me. Unfortunately, my father found the letter before I could mail it and he gave me quite a belting. But Forrey and I saw each other many times over the years. I was lucky enough to be a speaker at his tribute about a month ago. My library home is essentially my version of the Ackermansion. It's me trying to imitate my hero.
You've said that you were never a huge fan of fantasy and fantasy fiction. What was it about the Lord of the Rings films that made you think The Hobbit was something you wanted to direct?
The scene that hooked me was the moment where the Ringwraiths are right above the hobbits, who are hiding under the roots of a tree. You see the bugs, the insects crawling out and dropping onto the Hobbits. There's such great atmosphere. I think that's the key for me. When [other] directors were rendering fantasy movies, they had all this shiny armor and shiny castles. And Peter came from a horror aesthetic. He rendered that fantasy world in the way that either a historian or a Hammer film fan would do it. They were very texturally rich and dark. And that's what hooked me into the trilogy.