Lindqvist, John Ajvide

Review: “Harbour” by John Ajvide Lindqvist [2008]; translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy [2010]

If anybody were to write a horror story about the ocean (yes, you read it right), John Ajvide Lindqvist is the man to do it. The third of Lindqvist’s novels to be translated into English, the other two being the now well known Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, Harbour follows Lindqvist’s rather unique take on the horror genre.

On the isolated island of Domarö, Anders takes his family to visit the lighthouse. His wife, Cecilia, are childhood sweethearts having spent their summer holidays at Domarö since their youth. Their six year-old daughter, Maja, is a fireball of energy and set in her own ways.

The narrative is split largely between Anders and his step grandfather, Simon, a retired magician. Simon and Anders’ grandmother, Anna-Greta, have been together for the past fifty years although they still live separately with Simon living in the garden’s summer house. Simon and Anna-Greta reside on the island all year round and are considered ‘natives’ although Simon moved to Domarö in his early thirties.

On the way to the lighthouse, Simon is watching the little family from his house. The trio are impossible to miss due to their bright coats against the stark white bareness of the icy landscape. As Simon is observing them, a neighbour suggests that Simon ring Anders and tell them to turn away.

‘I think you should ring him and tell him … he ought to come home now.’

‘Why?

‘The ice can be unsafe out there.’

Simon snorted. ‘But it’s half a metre thick right across the bay!’

Elof sighed even more deeply and studied the pattern on the carpet. Then he did something unexpected. He raised his head, looked Simon straight in the eyes and said, ‘Do as I say. Ring the boy. And tell  him to gather up his family. And go home.’ – p. 19

The warning does not come in vain. Later that afternoon, while the family rests at the top of the lighthouse in the viewing room, Maja runs off to explore the place. She is never seen again. Although an extensive search is carried out, Maja has left no prints and the snow around the lighthouse is pristine save for the set leading to the lighthouse. Devastated, Anders and Cecilia leave Domarö

Two years later, Anders returns after Cecilia leaves him unable to cope any longer with his alcoholism and inability to seek help for his despair at losing Maja. Returning to the Shack where his family last resided, Anders strongly feels Maja’s presence and it both unsettles and comforts him. Anders also finds the camera he used on that fateful day and decides to develop the roll of film. In the last photos of Maja, Anders discovers that Maja is persistently staring at the same spot in the distance and he recalls the conversation he had with Maja while they were both in the lighthouse’s viewing room:

Maja was standing with her nose and hands pressed against the glass wall. When she heard Anders coming, she pointed out across the ice, towards the north-east.

‘Daddy, what’s that?’

Anders screwed his eyes up against the brightness and looked out over the ice. He couldn’t see anything apart from the white covering, and far away on the horizon just a hint of Ledinge archipelago.

‘What do you mean?’

Maja pointed. ‘There. On the ice.’ – p. 22

As Anders investigates further, he discovers that Maja isn’t the first to disappear completely without a trace. The town’s natives also have an unexplained fear of the sea although one of the main industry is herring. There is a strange hold over the island and an unlikely source of fear and power is revealed, harking back to the history of the island.

Harbour is another great read by Lindqvist although at 500 pages, it could have done with a good edit. The use of various narrative strings also tended to detract from the main story although it did help fill in the background and help streamline the jumping time line. The story is creepy but Lindqvist, like his previous novels, marries the unnatural, supernatural and reality seamlessly.

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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.