Review: “Handling the Undead” by John Ajvide Lindqvist [2005]; translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg [2009]

‘It was the spirits,’ she said. ‘The souls of the dead. They have been let out.’ – p. 43

The second novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the first being the very popular vampire tale Let the Right One In, Lindqvist shows that the horror genre can still be reinvented. Handling the Undead is set in Stockholm, 2002, and there is a strangeness in the air. An uncommon heat wave have persisted and Stockholm residents have all been plagued by a constant and painful headache. Lights and all technical appliances won’t turn off and those who try to pull the plug from the socket gets a nasty shock. When it reaches the climax, the headaches are blindingly painful, the heat suffocating and appliances with a life of their own, everything suddenly stops. And those who had died during the past two months begins to show signs of life.

There are several independent stories weaved through the book. Before the tension in the air breaks, David gets a call from the hospital telling him that his wife, Eva, has been killed in a road accident after hitting an Elk. At the hospital, Eva, or ‘Eva’, comes alive again.

Mahler, an ex-journalist, has spent the past two months looking after his bereft daughter, Anna, after the accidental death of her six-year-old son and Mahler’s beloved grandson, Elias. Mahler, when he realises that the dead is rising, rushes to the cemetery and digs out Elias who is, as expected, physically much changed.

Flora, a rebellious sixteen-year-old, shares a close bond with her grandmother Elvy, who is a dedicated Christian. Both women share a telepathic connection and a sixth sense. Elvy believes that with the rise of the dead, it must mean the Resurrection is coming.

As the dead continues to rise, the government is quick to act. Rather than treating the situation as bizarre, they respond with rationality. The army is sent to the cemeteries to start digging up the recently deceased. Hospitals attempt to isolate the ‘reliving’, as they are called, partly as preventative measures in case of infectious diseases and partly because of scientific curiousity and alarm. It is soon discovered that when they are in close proximity with the reliving, the living unintentionally can read everybody’s thoughts. Curiously, the reliving also become highly sensitive to the living’s thoughts and mirror them. If the living near them is thinking aggressive thoughts, the reliving becomes highly aggressive. If the living is calm, then the reliving remains docile.

Handling the Undead is a smart and intriguing read. Despite being designated the ‘horror’ label, I didn’t think it read like a horror novel (with zombies aside) and without a cliche in sight. The handling of the undead by Stockholm mimicked a medical and scientific breakthrough rather than  the end of the world. The ideas of love and relationship, especially between that of a child and parent, are explored. There are also undertones of political and social criticisms on the state of Stockholm which were interesting. A strange and quite sobering read questioning what we would actually do if our beloveds really rose from their graves and back into our arms again.

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16 comments

  1. This sounds right up my alley. I’ve never endeavored to read such a book before, but this one just got put on my TBR list. Thanks for the review!

  2. A lot of the points you’ve mentioned (weaving independent storylines; horror that isn’t really “horror” etc) are points I also noticed about Let The Right One In.

    I’m really keen to read this actually, it would be interesting to see if his second novel is an improvement on his writing (I was lukewarm about his first novel).

    Also, WOO zombies!

    1. Yes, I noticed, and appreciated, the similarities too. It kind of makes it (I’m being slightly snobbish here) an ‘intelligent’ horror novel. Having said that, I think most horror novels, or the few that I’ve read, are metaphorical exaggerations of society and its citizens.

      I wasn’t all that bothered about some idiosyncrasies in the writing. Some friends bought it up when we were discussing Let the Right One In but I think it was largely the translation that was buggered. We should ask somebody who can read Swedish to verify for us!

      1. Agreed on the ‘intelligence’ aspect of horror writing, and agreed on the translation point. Have you watched the movie yet? I really loved it.

        1. Haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m being cheap and waiting in line at my library. Just 9 more people to go! Are you going to see the remake? They’ve changed the characters’ names! The boy’s name is Owen now and Eli is Abby! And the film is ‘Let me In’. Gah!

  3. I SO want to read this. I think my son’s love of zombies is rubbing off on me. And based on Let the Right One In, I think Lindqvist is an interesting writer.

    1. I was really apprehensive about the whole zombie thing! Lindqvist really pulled it off though and without a cliche or stereotype in sight. Top marks for that.

    1. I wanted to see the movie but I wanted to read it first. It’s quite good and quite strange. Lindqvist has a gift of making rock music lyrics sound so poetic! It’s really an unusual story and throws new light on Sweden’s clean cut image.

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