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.