Since the mid-1990s, Scandinavian fiction has enjoyed an unprecedented upsurge in popularity. Writers like Jo Nesbø and Camilla Läckberg have ridden the so-called Nordic Noir crimewave in the wake of Henning Mankell’s ‘Wallander’ novels and Stieg Larsson’s extraordinary ‘Millennium’ trilogy, gathering huge international sales, critical acclaim and large budget film adaptations. TV series like Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge and Sebastian Bergman have also satisfied a hitherto-unforeseen public craving for Scandinavian crime on both page and screen that shows no signs of abating.
And the wave hasn’t just been confined to crime. Three years ago (was it really only three?) John Ajvide Lindqvist was catapulted up the bestseller lists with the huge success of Tomas Alfredson’s film of his 2004 vampire novel Let the Right One In. This brought him to much wider attention and spawned the inevitable comparisons with Stephen King, plus the equally inevitable English-language remake, Let Me In. His next novels, Handling the Undead – where zombies are recoded as ‘the reliving’ and their existence is given a quasi-scientific rationale – and Harbour, with its Morrissey-quoting demons, were not as well received. Thus the fanticipation for his first collection of short fiction in English translation, in which the title story is a sequel of sorts to Let the Right One In, has been immense. And the good news is that, by and large, it delivers, offering a surreal, inventive, thought-provoking, stylish and at times incendiary reading experience. Indeed, if there is a disappointment to be had it’s only because Lindqvist is capable of hitting such soaring heights that one wishes he would do so more often.
The writing style is spare, precise and rhythmic with few flourishes (kudos must also go to translator Marlaine Delargy), but there is a wild, surreal undercurrent present throughout that bursts through occasionally to produce rare flights of fancy – perhaps not surprising given Lindqvist’s previous career as stand-up comedian and magician. The stories are sprinkled with almost Murakami-esque repetitions: of location (most are set in the same area of Sweden); character types (a preponderance of female protagonists, retirees, lovers and ordinary working people trying to get by); occupations (railway ticket inspectors); motifs (holiday cottages, boats, trees and water). Water features strongly in a few of the stories and once again it is tempting to make a connection with the author’s life: Lindqvist’s father drowned, and in his work the sea is often a dark, sinister presence harbouring elemental horror and evil. Films, books and other elements of popular culture recur also, and point to a science fictional as well as horror influence on the author’s part.
The book is a hybrid of two Swedish collections, Paper Walls and Let the Old Dreams Die, comprising all the stories from PW and the title story of LTODD. The first story, ‘Border’, really hits the ground running. Tina is a customs officer with physical disfigurements after being struck by lightning as a child, and such a finely-tuned ability to read people that she can detect anyone carrying illegal items. This talent could have made her a fortune in the USA but instead she has chosen to live a quiet, serene existence in the Swedish port of Kapellskär. One day at work she encounters the unusual and disturbing traveller, Vore, whom she knows instinctively is a smuggler but when she searches him, he is clean. She has no idea what he’s hiding, or how; her only certainty is that there is something. Rattled, Tina becomes more and more obsessive about Vore, risking her sanity and professional credibility in her desperate need to discover his secret. Her quest has genuinely astonishing consequences and a bravura love scene that will linger long in the memory. A corker of an opening.
Like ‘Border’, the best stories here are those that grow directly from their protagonists’ personalities rather than those that seem more concerned with structure, or are simply too inconsequential. Lindqvist is certainly a better writer when prioritising people over plot. It could be argued that endings are not his strongest point, but it’s a price worth paying for such organic narrative growth through close character development. It’s unusual for a horror author to be so cavalier with genre codes and conventions – horror tropes can disappear for long spells, only to erupt again when least expected. The protagonist of ‘Can’t See It! It Doesn’t Exist!’ is a photographer hiding in a tree on a private estate, waiting not-so-patiently to get the pictures of a newly-together A-list celebrity couple that will secure his career and financial future. The horror is pressurised, subtle, infectious, and exists entirely inside his own head. The best piece – at least for this writer – ‘Majken’, is not a horror story at all but a brilliant revenge tale about Dolores, a bored, unhappy pensioner who finds true liberation from drudgery, a lifetime of being undervalued and cloistered social conditioning when she becomes involved with a shadowy group of elderly female shoplifters. ‘Substitute’ reunites two schoolmates whose adult lives have taken very different directions. Over the course of a tense, uncomfortable evening one learns the incredible outcome of the other’s obsession with their former supply teacher, and his conception of human reality and physical laws is blown out of the water. ‘Substitute’ is not the only story that carries a wonderful surreal signal where the absurd is made concrete, but instead of being given a sharp, colourful flourish this reality is often muted and banal, and all the more effective for it. As mentioned, Lindvist’s name has been compared with Stephen King but this little gem is more reminiscent of King fils’ Joe Hill’s memorable story ‘Pop Art’, from the collection 20th Century Ghosts.
In other stories the horror elements are all present and correct, if not quite presented as such. ‘Equinox’ takes a superb creepy twist (and then a few more) when, in the freezing depths of winter, a housewife discovers a corpse on a bed in a chalet near her resort home. In ‘Village on the Hill’, Joel discovers a chilling link between the appearance of structural defects in his apartment building and the disappearance of a few of the tenants.
But, but, but. What about ‘Let the Old Dreams Die’? Well, what about it? Somewhat anti-climactic unless the reader can free himself from the mental expectation of finding out what happened to LTROI‘s Oskar and Eli, in which case it’s not a bad story by any means, but not up with the best in the collection. While one is careful to avoid spoilers, it is not unreasonable to let slip that the story gives away almost nothing on that front. It is in fact a love story, but not that of Oskar and Eli, although their presence is entwined in every fibre of the piece. There’s a sense that Lindqvist felt he was walking a tightrope; compelled to revisit the novel and the characters, but not daring to address them directly and instead settling on an oblique angle from which to view the original narrative at a remove.
The longest piece here, at 110 pages, is ‘The Final Processing’ – another sequel/response to a novel, this time Handling the Undead. It’s the last story and, unfortunately for a final piece, the least effective of them all. The shaky concept and background of the ‘reliving’ zombies fits uneasily within the matrix of the narrative, and it descends into a rather repetitious thriller formula, with unsympathetic characters, odd plot bends and gaping logic holes. The reliving are housed in a key scientific research complex yet with so much at stake a motley group of activists manages to access the place not just once but repeatedly to discover what is really going on and put a spanner in the works. There are interesting metaphors and philosophical questions under the surface – government and scientific abuses of power, an ethical dilemma over whether or not it is murder to kill that which is already dead – but too often they’re lost in a fog of half-developed ideas and barely credible situations.
In Lindqvist’s world idyllic situations don’t survive for long before being thwarted, either through tragedy, physical/mental illness, scientific and political machinations or forces of horror and the supernatural. Whatever the interfering agency, for many of his characters happiness is transient and they drift along at the mercy of a world they do not understand, an unequal world that is certainly no meritocracy, facing dangers that can lurk around any corner
In a short Afterword, Lindqvist provides a few thoughts on his success, his writing process and the fates of a few ideas. He offers some assessment of his own writing qualities, but little perspective on the bigger picture of background, motivations, influences (except Morrissey) etc – he prefers to concentrate on the small things. This attitude is reflected in the work itself; it’s the subtle nuances that count, with a far greater focus on the interstices of life than on the grand design, and for this the reader should be grateful. For in those nooks and crannies horror is born, breeds and flourishes, and Lindqvist has let loose a wayward brood of stories to enthral, unsettle, intrigue and, yes indeed, sometimes scare the living bejeezus out of us.
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