Book Reviews

Handling the Undead * John Ajvide Lindqvist

9781921351808There are thousands, if not millions, of writers in the world whose names will never be known and whose novelist careers will never earn them enough to make a living. And then there are the lucky few who receive the critical or market acclaim that elevates them to an entirely different level. John Ajvide Lindqvist has reached that level, at least momentarily.

His debut novel Let the Right One In was a bestseller in Sweden, and the movie adaptation by director Tomas Alfredsson was one of the best movies of 2008. It’s not too often your first book is both a bestseller and adapted into a worldwide hit.

Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead, hits bookstores today (conveniently on the eve of the October 1 release of the American adaptation Let Me In). Like Let the Right One In was a reinvention of the vampire genre, Handling the Undead is an attempt to revise zombies.

Something very peculiar is happening in Stockholm. There’s a heatwave on and people cannot turn their lights out or switch their appliances off. Then the terrible news breaks. In the city morgue, the dead are waking up…

“But Eva was not dead, he was not allowed to grieve. And she was not alive, so he could not hope. Nothing.”

‘Handling the Undead’ begins in Stockholm on a night when the weather is heavy and everyone can feel that something is about to happen and it does! In the worst way imaginable, people who have been dead for less than two months are returning from the dead and the government and the Church go into a panic as they are trying to calm down the families who are suddenly faced with a dead grandfather or other relative showing up at their doorstep.

What would you do? Would you accept a person you once loved so dearly that you had to part with back into your life? What if you didn’t love that person so much?

The government, in an attempt to find out what’s happening, they decide to take the re-living out of the hospitals where they were initially committed and move them into an isolated camp where they can be held in peace. They perform some basic experiments to find out the decomposition temperature, their sustenance method and they found out that these living zombies don’t need anything to eat in order to survive, have no heartbeat and very faint EKG. An ethical problem arises. Is it OK to run experiments on the re-living? They are humans. But they died so in a way, they ended their contract with humanity. They are things but they are capable of basic speech and they can be taught.

Anna gets her son back. Elias has been dead a long time and his skin had turned a shade of olive. His eyes were almost closed. In his too large pyjamas, he looked like a mummy.
Anna gets her son back. Elias has been dead a long time and his skin had turned a shade of olive. His eyes were almost closed. In his too large pyjamas, he looked like a mummy. Artwork by http://lilhydra.deviantart.com/

A strange electrical current occurs and about 2000 of the recently departed are returning home. According to a character Flora when asked by her brother about what the dead are like, she replies “They’re nice.” In the end, it’s not that simple.

Difficult to read, weighty themes and topics. Not a light hearted read at all.

Ultimately a human story about loss and how to deal with it. Certainly not an action story, some would say that it’s not a horror story, but I would disagree. It’s not a blood squirting, face eating kind of story. The horror comes from less expected sources, more subtle, less obvious.

The living, when around the dead, start becoming telepathic. The dead, when around the living, start absorbing their emotions, which are mostly negative. Bad things happen due to both.

All of the relationships are strong relationships, you can feel the strength as you read, and you feel their pain and their loss, their confusion, coming to terms with a loss and then their happiness when their loved ones return.

Flora and Elvy have been sensitive to the "other world" for a long time. Elvy receives a vision of the Virgin Mary asking her to turn them into her again. She thinks that she means the living when she actually meant the dead...
Flora and Elvy have been sensitive to the “other world” for a long time. Elvy receives a vision of the Virgin Mary asking her to turn them into her again. She thinks that she means the living when she actually meant the dead… Artwork by http://lilhydra.deviantart.com/

I found ‘Handling the Undead’ to be a powerful read, so many questions are raised and so many social problems are brought forward, you will get very engrossed in this story, there is so much to this book that you will find enjoyable, enlightening, scary and most of all make you look at the world around you.

What I liked about the book:

A good and intelligent approach to zombies, social re-integration of the re-living, studying of what means to have a person with no pulse alive. The religious mania that issued the return of the dead being associated with the second coming and the end of days.

I also loved the moment when the almost catatonic beings are starting to be more active, especially when Eva, the mother who died in an accident, rips off the head of a bunny her son had brought to show her after the son cannot deal with the death present in her features.

What I didn’t like about the book:

There are some interesting characters scattered throughout, but there are plenty more that I didn’t care about. Their motivations are inexplicable and their rationale hard to fathom. Many of the characters are weird and hard to relate to, and while it’s fine to have strange people in your story, Lindqvist tries to cast them as ordinary people spurred into action by extreme circumstances. Perhaps it’s because I struggled to get invested in the story, but I even had trouble remembering which characters were which.

Complementing the issue, Lindqvist doesn’t build to a satisfying conclusion. There’s a moment two-thirds through the book where it looks like things are suddenly going to build to something amazing, but it never pans out. He just fails to build to a satisfying physical and emotional conclusion, primarily because he has so many characters to deal with. There are moments that hint at what could have been, but they never materialize.

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