NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Few people have spent as much time thinking about monsters as Guillermo del Toro. His movies and books combine elements of reality, fantasy and horror. "Pan's Labyrinth," for example, featured some very scary creatures, but the real monsters were human.
Monsters abound in his two "Hellboy" pictures, but the hero is a nerdy, wise-cracking demon. And in a series of novels, he reimagines the vampire as anything but romantic or brooding.
In the final book of the trilogy that began with "The Strain," del Toro's superhuman vampires have taken over a benighted Earth while a few survivors fight to reclaim the planet.
So what makes a monster a monster? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, on The Opinion Page, Julia Vitullo-Martin on the evolution of American cities post-9/11. But first, Guillermo del Toro joins us from the CBC Studios in Toronto. The final volume in "The Strain" trilogy he wrote with Chuck Hogan is just out. It's called "The Night Eternal," and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: I'm very happy to be here.
CONAN: And I wanted to read a description of the vampire-in-chief as seen through the eyes of his prisoner and protege, 13-year-old Zack Goodweather: The master was a being possessed of actual magic, diabolical magic yes, but the only true magic Zack had ever witnessed. Good and evil were malleable terms now. The world had changed. Night was day. Down was the new up. Here in the master was proof of a higher being, a superhuman, a divinity. His power was extraordinary.
And I wanted to ask you: A, that's pretty nice; and B, is the purpose of monsters to take us humans down a peg?
DEL TORO: In a way it is. I mean, in a way it is because it allows us to revert to a slightly more spiritually humble position, so to speak, and it is a very fertile territory for spiritual reflection. It's very strange to say this but particularly so in the third volume, in "The Night Eternal," you know, we take the trilogy, which started analyzing biology, vampiric biology, continued going into the sociology of the things, and now the third book has a lot of ruminations that are almost of a spiritual nature.
CONAN: Over, well, among other things, the nature of angels.
DEL TORO: Yes, the idea with this - I mean, the novel opens with a very, very strong passage about the extermination of the rich and powerful and influential throughout all the great cities in the world. And it's a very savage piece. You know, it really is very brutal, but it's almost like an unleashing of a collective fantasy...
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DEL TORO: That a lot of people have right now and about - but then it continues into a world where you come to realize that we all are pawns of a battle between good and evil, that our actions can be measured in spiritual terms, even when we live very prosaic lives.
It's a very - we tried something really different with the third book than the other two. Each one was different from the other.
CONAN: And I have to say yes, you say all the leaders were killed at the - removed from the equation in part to present a more docile, malleable group of pawns, cattle if you will. It doesn't speak well of us that there's only a few that will rise up.
DEL TORO: Well, you know, the thing is, the thing that is very shocking on the opening of the book is that it's two years later, and essentially the opening passage ends up saying what was really troubling, what was really brutal is the fact that we got used to it, you know, the fact that a lot of the people got used to - you know, as long as they had their TV time, and they had transportation, and they had food, a lot of the people fell into place.
You know, and then you see this - some of the people even reverted into guardians guarding the slaughter of others in exchange for social commodity. And I think that a social experiment or two have been done to that effect, but in fact the group mentality forgives some of the most atrocious acts.
And, you know, it speaks to the beginning of the trilogy, which in the first and second books we dealt with acts of brutality that are socially known in history. And now we present a third one that kind of reflects that we, we are actually launching in the next few days a couple of interactive websites that are very, very shocking, supporting the book, and that show you how incredibly gentle this new world would seem from the official websites of the guys running the slaughterhouses, you know, with things like 'the truth about silver' and 'why your loved ones are going to find a better existence.'
And, you know, it's just all in the way it is presented.
CONAN: The truth about silver is that it's a sovereign element that is very effective against vampires.
DEL TORO: Yes, and it becomes sort of a black-market item, and it becomes incredibly valuable. And the book, you know, I tried - we tried very hard to create a Mobius strip between what is the spiritual and what is scientific, you know.
There is a moment in the book where I quote, it says the language of God is biology, you know, and the language of God is physics. It is up to us to decode the message. You know, and I think there's a moment in the book where we tried to make sense of the spiritual through the biology and vice versa, that I found really interesting and trying.
CONAN: Yet this is all part of a - we aren't who we think we are. We think we are the head of the food chain, the top dog on the planet, the one being that thinks and creates. And yet what we learn is that we are simply byproducts of someone else's creation.
DEL TORO: It is, and the interesting thing is how fast we revert to a really savage nature, you know. We - and how quickly we revert back to civilized. You know, we can get into - we can whip up an entire city into a riot frenzy in a matter of hours, and in a matter of hours, the same people that were rioting can be shopping for milk in the same store that they vandalized two days before.
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DEL TORO: It is really quite an insane organization, and what the book is trying to say is what is happening is another form of brutal extermination, but it's not the only one that we have ever experienced.
CONAN: How do you go about - and this relates not just to this book but to the idea of this series - but how do you go about creating this, not only a creature but a worldview? This has to shape history. This has to shape, as you suggest, biology, physics, a lot of other things, what is real and what isn't. You have to make a lot of decisions at the get-go.
DEL TORO: Yeah, since we created - Chuck and I discussed the three books at once from the beginning. We knew we had a very long map to follow to get to make the points we wanted to make, some of them less popular than others. I think some of them are less entertaining and a little more hard-hitting if you're looking for lighter fiction than others.
But we really discussed everything that was going to take place and how to bring in a biblical background and a historical background, very different in each one of the three books, you know, World War II in book one, post-World War II in book - in the second book. And here we talk about biblical times and pre-biblical times.
CONAN: A lot of the book is about Sodom and Gomorrah.
DEL TORO: Yeah, yeah, and it is just to give a mythic dimension, again, to the vampires, but a mythic dimension that has nothing to do with what people know about vampirism. It's sort of saying what if they had been born out of this first cataclysm.
When people talk to us about the first book, I said, you know, you - we will understand why the vampires root in places of great destruction by the third book, because ultimately that's where they were birthed at.
CONAN: We're talking with Guillermo del Toro, the movie director, producer, executive producer and also co-author with Chuck Hogan of three novels in the "Strain" series, the most recent just out, "The Night Eternal." We want to involve you in the conversation. What makes a monster a monster? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And we'll start with Naokia(ph) in East Lansing - in Lansing, Michigan, excuse me.
DEL TORO: Hello.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.
NAOKIA: Yes, well, what makes a monster a monster would be something that we have never seen, never have dealt with and wouldn't know how to kill or just wouldn't know how to, you know, understand, have no understanding of it.
DEL TORO: Yes.
CONAN: Be outside the human experience.
NAOKIA: Totally outside or either - maybe it would be a machine that it would just be something that we have, like, maybe it could control us in some kind of way where, that we wouldn't know.
CONAN: Guillermo del Toro, would you accept that as a definition?
DEL TORO: Well, that's a very good way of going. I mean, I think that's precisely the description you read of the master. When we encounter something that is grander than us, whether it's good or evil is beyond the point, is we are immediately shocked by its existence.
I mean, I think monsters, by my definition, are something that sort of passes the natural, you know, whether it's the natural order of things biologically, spiritually, what we tend to say is the norm, something that goes way beyond the tools we have to understand it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. I've read your self-description in a profile in the New Yorker, I think last year, that you became a raging atheist, yet you write a lot about the supernatural.
DEL TORO: Well because I have a lot of spiritual curiosity and beliefs. I think I am very interested - and I believe there is a spiritual dimension, without a doubt, to both our world and our existence in it. You know, what I don't like is organized religion.
I mean, I think that it is up to us to figure out a very, very - in most people, most people know - are born with a moral compass that is both social and spiritual. There are few that don't. Most of them find jobs at financial institutions.
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DEL TORO: But, you know, a lot of us are born with a clear feeling of what is right and what is wrong and ultimately are governed by that, and I think there is a spiritual dimension to this.
CONAN: We're talking about monsters with director and writer Guillermo del Toro. More of your calls in a moment. What makes a monster a monster? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We know Guillermo del Toro as a director and an author. He's also a producer. On a deeper level, he's a connoisseur, a creator of monsters; in "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy" and in the latest installment of the trilogy he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan, "The Night Eternal."
In the opening pages, he describes a world conquered and run by brutal, calculating vampires: It was a purge and a putsch, he writes in the opening pages, roughly one-third of the human population was exterminated over that 72-hour period, which had since become known collectively as night zero.
You can read more about what happened during and just after night zero in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We also want to hear from you. What makes a monster a monster? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is Jorge(ph), Jorge with us from Denver.
CONAN: You're on the air, Jorge, go ahead, please.
DEL TORO: Hey, Jorge.
JORGE: Hi, Guillermo. I just want to say I'm a big fan of your work.
DEL TORO: Thank you.
JORGE: And I was thinking a monster is something that you can develop from your dreams. I know you've talked a lot about your dreams. I read an article about you in Time magazine, and you say most of your monsters do come from your dreams. And I think the scariest things, which are monsters - I don't believe monsters are physical or human - they're something, like you said, you can't control. And I think they mostly come from your dreams. What do you think about that?
DEL TORO: Well, I think that most of the monsters I dream of I dreamt of as a child. Actually, since I became an adolescent and then an adult, although my daughters and my wife would argue with that...
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CONAN: The adult part?
DEL TORO: The adult part. But I really dreamt - I had nightmares as a kid. As an adult, I have very prosaic dreams. But what you say is true about - it's something you cannot stop. For example in humans, monstrous behavior is when what we think is a social, tacit agreement that we have of decency or morality or ethics are just transgressed without - at the blink of an eye.
I mean, that's why I say the true monsters in our lives are real, are human. Those are very palpable. When a banker can foreclose on a family without blinking, when somebody can evict or destroy the life of someone for purely abstract reasons like, you know, large amounts of money or this and that, you know, I find this - rules that we live by but that I find horrible to embrace in a human behavior.
CONAN: Here's a - and Jorge, thanks very much for the call - an email to that point from Carolyn(ph) in Charlotte: I think the most monstrous beings are adults who abuse their own children. How is that anything but evil? And you said yes, and also in your film, as we mentioned, in "Pan's Labyrinth," yeah, there are monsters. The monsters are the people in the house.
DEL TORO: Yes, I think that in my mind, the most - I always say family is the source of every joy or every horror that we really experience when we are fully unprepared. You know, I think that's - that's the first stop of a tragic life or the first stop of a great life. I think that, you know, people talk about assets, and people talk about assets in terms of money and gold and oil, and the most incredible asset, the one that is exploited in (unintelligible) ways is childhood.
I mean, I think it's the most - you know, the Holocaust of childhood, which has been perpetrated morally and socially for centuries, you know, millennia, one would argue, is a social tragedy. I think that comment is very pertinent and very painfully true.
CONAN: Do you find that people not take you seriously because they dismiss you as a guy who makes monster movies?
DEL TORO: You know, only the people I would have no interest in talking to anyway. You know, I think that that is mutual.
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DEL TORO: When that happens, it's mutual. I think that there is an incredible seriousness to the craft of creating what one would call grotesques. You know, and whether you talk about people carving cathedrals, people doing monsters in illuminated manuscripts or people like Edgar Allan Poe in prose or poetry or you name it, you know, Bocklin, Arnold Bocklin as a painter, any number of painters and sculptors have been preoccupied by these figures because they represent a side of our spirituality.
I really, I find it also that, refreshingly and fortunately, the longer I go at creating it, the more people realize that for me, this is not a stepping stone to something else, that to me this is the work I really live and breathe.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Let's go to John(ph), John with us from Mesa, Arizona.
JOHN: Hey, how's it going, guys?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
DEL TORO: Hey, John.
JOHN: Hey Guillermo, I just wanted to tell you it's so nice to talk to you. I mean, I can totally tell that you were a fan of monster movies, you know, growing up, and I've got to tell you, I mean, I love your work, and I love that you keep that sensibility of, like, you know, the original, like Grimm's fairy tales, where there was kind of a darker edge to it, but there was some dark humor in there, as well.
DEL TORO: Thank you. Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much. I mean, I think that the beauty, when you study fairy tales to a deeper level, whether it is - whether you are studying them for symbolism, whether you're studying them from an anthropological point of view, they are incredibly complex narratives.
You know, there is even people that have come up with attempts at doing a taxonomy of the fairy tale and so forth. But the beauty of them is that they go beyond that, that, you know, when you're talking about monsters and creatures and fantasy, you can only go so far before the explanation and the taxonomy and this and that are completely overwhelmed by the fact that we do it because we need it.
It's a social function, a basic function of mankind and our brain and our soul to invent monsters. And it's only in the aftermath of the Age of Reason and in the aftermath of a society that believes in machines and rules and a stock market and other inventions like that, which are completely fabulistic for me, it's only in this society that we consider that a childish pursuit.
JOHN: I don't think it's childish at all. I'm in my mid-30s. I love it. I mean, I hope I never stop wanting to hear stories and monster stories, you know.
DEL TORO: Why should you? That's what fireplaces are for.
CONAN: John, thanks very much. Are there any monsters you could think we would be better off without, for example, the romantic vampires that have populated television and movies these past few years?
DEL TORO: Well, you know, I don't. I'm not - absolutely I'm not - I don't try to sanction other people's joy in monsters. I mean, I think the fact is humor, fantasy, you know, like fear, desire or laughter create genres of their own: comedy, melodrama or erotic films or horror films. They're all - the boundaries cannot be defined. It's to each his own.
You know, you cannot dictate what people find funny, what people find attractive or what people find scary. There is not a norm. So I think that the monster tale or the horror tale have so many forms that every one is acceptable. In every form, there are better or worse narratives, but ultimately all those forms are pretty valid, and they have been with us since inception.
When you go back to the literary genre of the vampire, the vampire as a gentleman, as a dandy and as a monster, was birthed at the precise same time in the same tale, which is "The Vampire," by John W. Polidori.
CONAN: This is also who you are. After the success of "Pan's Labyrinth," you could have gone on to make art movies. It was a very successful movie in that respect. And yet you continue to make monster movies.
DEL TORO: Yeah, I mean, I remember one of the first people that saw my first movie, "Cronos," which was a vampire - a strange vampire film that is available now on BluRay and DVD and so forth, but it was Jim Cameron. And Jim has been a very good friend for about 20 years.
And he, after one or two of those movies, he said: Aren't you worried that you're going to be pigeonholed? I said: That's what I want to be. I want to be - I want to be a guy that really, sincerely - since I was a kid, I sincerely thought you could create beautiful, precious things with this genre, you know, and there are people that have done it. You know, George Romero, certainly David Cronenberg and others that definitely work in what I consider incredible, powerful narratives, great art films that are at the same time very much part of the genre.
CONAN: Let's go next to Devon(ph), Devon calling from St. Paul.
DEVON: Oh, how's it going, guys?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
DEL TORO: Hey, Devon.
DEVON: I'm doing well. I just want to - whenever I think about monsters, I'm always drawn to H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu, and that's kind of my version of a monster. It's something that - it's an entity that is so unimaginably evil and malicious that if we were to encounter it - if we were lucky to survive - our minds would just be ruined, we'd be driven insane by that. And I was wondering if you pull that, any of that, you know, H.P. Lovecraft influence into your work or...
DEL TORO: Yes. Well, in fact, I was trying to get an adaptation of "At the Mountains of Madness" at Universal until last year when they - it collapsed because we couldn't agree on the rating of the movie, you know? But the fact is Lovecraft is one of the best examples in the cosmic size horror, you know? And if you have ever experienced anything remotely paranormal or strange in your life, you get an overwhelming sense, you know, it's like a crack in the - in reality, you know, in the surface of reality. And Lovecraft - yes, very often, he makes his heroes go entirely mad after getting a glimpse of the other side. And I think that Lovecraft was a rationalist in his daily life. He was a very - a guy with a great scientific curiosity.
But ultimately, I do think he believed in the malignancy of the universe, you know? And, you know, he had a very tough life. He was a recluse - and you can understand why he had that ultra-misanthropic view. But yes, that his - his whole point is if you encounter one of these things, your mind would explode, essentially.
CONAN: Maybe he should've gotten out of the house more often.
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DEL TORO: That is always good.
CONAN: Devon, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
DEVON: Yup. Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email, this from Dawn(ph) in Anchorage. Monsters remind us we are human. Our hearts palpitate, our flesh crawls; we tremble and take stock of what matters, we love them because we fear them. Monsters keep us honest.
DEL TORO: Yes, I think that's a beautiful - it's almost like one of the nicest description. I think it's absolutely true. And we can, you know, when you're gauging yourself in a spiritual or moral term or ethical terms, you know, you need absolutes to guide where you're going, in the same way that in order to stay in a road, you need one sight on another, you know? And I think morals - monsters in fantasy are one side of the road and the other monsters, the real ones, the ones we experience in the news and in the stock market are the other side, you know?
CONAN: Our guest is Guillermo del Toro, the movie director, producer and sometime executive producer, the author, most recently, of part three in the "Strain" trilogy, "The Night Eternal," along with Chuck Hogan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Sarah(ph) is on the line. Sarah, calling us from Mankato in Minnesota.
SARAH: Hi, Mr. del Toro. Listening to this, I guess, I have a really different view of what a monster is and wondering what you think of this. And that's that we don't always recognize monsters as something visually or physically horrible. But to me, the scariest kind of monster would be the enticing and the beautiful...
DEL TORO: Yes. Correct.
SARAH: ...with the evil contained within. And what could bring someone to that, in my mind, would be the lack of empathy. The fact that I have, you know, no reason whatsoever to identify with you, feel sorry for you, you know, be in any way influenced by human emotion or anything like that, but I can get so many people to follow me, to go along with me, to admire me out of that enticing sort of...
DEL TORO: Nature.
SARAH: ...you know what I mean?
DEL TORO: I absolutely know what you mean. And I make an effort, for example, if you watch "Pan's Labyrinth," I cast the human monster in that movie is a guy that is very attractive, is very handsome, very elegant, very poised. Ultimately, you know, sort of a quote, unquote, "gentleman."
CONAN: The master in this book takes the form, the body, of a rock star, very charismatic.
DEL TORO: Yeah. And the same goes with "Devil's Backbone," another Spanish movie I made where the most terrible character is very handsome. I agree with you. I think that part of the daily horror we live is that evil is incredibly seductive. In a way, even intellectually there is a very dishonest view, I think, which is if you are always in disagreement and always skeptical, automatically you seem smarter than if you're an optimist, you know? Optimism and stupidity seem to be synonymous in a post, sort of jaded, existential era, you know? And I think that there is very intelligent optimism I have heard, and there is incredibly stupid skepticism I have heard. So I think it's a very interesting point you're making.
And I agree, what scares me the most is the moment when we can literally - somebody can cross the line and destroy somebody else's life in some way - economic, spiritual or any other - and their pulse doesn't go up, you know?
CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call.
SARAH: Thank you.
CONAN: We've been talking about horror. You obviously have an affection for science fiction as well. One of the characters, in fact, in this series named Eldritch Palmer, fans of Philip K. Dick will, of course, remember "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch."
DEL TORO: Yes.
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DEL TORO: I love, you know, it's funny, I love - when you see my library, which is an entire house, my library, it's - one of the rooms, one of the biggest rooms, which has thousands and thousands of volumes of horror, and then I have one bookshelf of science fiction and three shelves of fantasy. So that's me right there, you know? And the people I admire are the people that push science fiction into the conceptual: Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson. You know, these are some of the guys I really admire, and Philip K. Dick is fascinating.
CONAN: A fascinating character. Well, we could talk for a long time, but, Guillermo del Toro, I'm afraid our time is up. Good luck with the new book.
DEL TORO: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me.
CONAN: Guillermo del Toro, he's the author most recently of "The Night Eternal," the third and final volume in the "Strain" trilogy. It's published - it's written, of course, with Chuck Hogan. And he joined us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.
Up next: how to save our cities from the threat of urban militarism. Julia Vitullo-Martin argues on the opinion page that, since 9/11, the federal government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars defacing public spaces. Stay with us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.