How do you recognize a great love?
When I saw this book on the Library sale I squeaked with excitement as I haven’t read anything from John Ajvide Lindqvist in more than 6 months and I am proud to declare myself a fan (on top of the known 17 who showed up at his signing show) and promptly bought the book not knowing what to expect from such a raw writer.
As a reminder, here are the other books from John Ajvide Lindqvist I’ve read:
- Let the right one in – John Ajvide Lindqvist
- Handling the Undead * John Ajvide Lindqvist
- Harbour * John Ajvide Lindqvist
Based on the notes at the back of the book (yes, I’ve read those too), this book comes before Harbour and it was intended to present another ending for Let the Right One In in light of the movies that came out.
“How do we imagine a great love?
Perhaps something along the lines of Gone with the Wind or Titanic is what comes to mind. But those aren’t really about love itself, but about a situation. Everything becomes more grand when it takes place in the context of a civil war, a shipwreck, or natural catastrophe. But that is like judging the painting by the frame. That the Mona Lisa should be judged a masterpiece largely because of the carvings that surround it.
Love is love. In the dramatic stories, the people involved are physically willing to give up their lives for each other, but that is exactly what happens in the great but everyday love also. You give your lives to each other the whole way and every day, until death.”
If you’ve already read Let the Right One In, or seen the movie, you should find it interesting catching up with Oskar and Eli in Let the Old Dreams Die while The Final Processing returns to meet up with the incredibly odd characters from Handling the Undead. For me, by far the best story of the compilation is the totally surreal and completely off-the-wall ‘Border’ with it’s odd themes of folklore and hidden identity. There are elements of Border which hooked me in so deeply I was mesmerized by the tale of Tina and Vore and their growing love story.
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.
When all hope was lost for the people she caught smuggling, they sometimes started screaming at her. Screaming about the way she looked. Something about Mongols, about the fact that she ought to be put out of her misery. She never got used to it. That was why she let others do the tough stuff once she had pointed out a miscreant. To avoid the horror when the acting stopped and the mask slipped.
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 traveler, 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. What it is… it’s the stuff of legends.
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.
‘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.
Death is just walking out of a door
leaving a room full of light
in a pair of eyes.
‘Let the Old Dreams Die’
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.
Next to the station there was a small grove, an open space surrounded by deciduous shrubs where people could wait for the train in the summer. The grove was illuminated by a single floodlight, and Stefan saw Oskar Eriksson sitting on the trunk he had had with him on the train. A girl with black hair was sitting beside him.
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. It’s quite boring, activists trying to bring death to the undead who are alive and the fight between the son and father which ends with a death. 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.
Without looking, Kalle gestured towards the beds. ‘Was that… death, that thing?’
‘Yes. Or…your version of it. What did you see?’
‘I don’t know. Something tall. Thin.’
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.