Do some research on John Ajvide Lindqvist and you will sooner or later read that he is "Sweden's Stephen King." Probably sooner rather than later, given the long half-life of quotable blurbs. In fact, this is such a promising marketing label, that Lindqvist’s US publisher puts it on the back cover of Let the Right One In, the author’s debut 2004 novel.
I can’t really blame them. Stephen King has sold roughly 350 million books over the years and has loyal readers all around the world. What publishing house wouldn’t want a piece of that action? And Nordic genre fiction—especially the dark and twisted kind—has been in ascendancy for more than decade. If we are looking to crown a new King, why not turn to Sweden, where they still profess allegiance to the trappings of monarchy. (A synchronicity to consider: Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden was born around the same time as Stephen King, and became monarch shortly after the publication of the latter’s first novel.)
And, at first glance, Lindqvist’s work bears some striking similarities to King’s. Let the Right One In reveals its author’s proficiency in juggling different subplots and marshaling a small army of characters in a kaleidoscopic narrative. King proved himself a master of this pointillistic style from the start of his career—check out his debut novel Carrie and admire how deftly, even when he was an unproven novice, he managed to relate a gruesome horror story with a quasi-avant garde style, fragmented and chronologically convoluted, without ever losing the reader or the thread of the plot. Lindqvist follows in the same footsteps, boldly adjusting his form to meet the needs of his content. Some of his subchapters are just a few paragraphs, or in one instance just a single sentence. The focal point, meanwhile, constantly shifts among a half- dozen major characters, and around twenty significant secondary personages.
The main plot centers on a series of ritual killings that are puzzling authorities and generating overheated newspaper copy. Victims are found drained of blood, and even after tests and a thorough investigation, the police lack a single suspect. Against this background, Lindqvist relates the story of young boy named Oskar, bullied at school and dreaming of revenge, and his neighbor, the mysterious Eli. Eli has the appearance of a fragile and sickly young girl. But looks are deceiving. Almost everything the reader assumes about Eli will prove to be wrong during the course of this novel.
From this starting point, Lindqvist branches off into a series of noir-ish subplots. These relate to Oskar’s troubled situation at school and home, Eli’s dysfunctional relationship with her apparent father, and the comings and goings of various victims and their loved ones. Lindqvist rarely stays with any of these stories for more than a few pages at a time, but he relentlessly pushes each forward over the course of several hundred pages.
Ah, but here the similarity with King ends. Lindqvist’s characters are mostly stick figures, puppets to advance the story with little substance beyond their pre-ordained roles—victim, bully, dupe, father figure, enabler, and so forth. The most well-constructed personage in the book is Eli—here Lindqvist takes some pains to enlist the readers’ sympathies for his childlike bloodsucker. And I give him some credit for anticipating a few of the memes of the Twilight saga, launched a few months after the publication of Let the Right One In. But the idea of a romantic, troubled vampire is hardly a novelty—you can trace it back to 1800 and Johann Ludwig Tieck "Wake Not the Dead" and Anne Rice perfected this subgenre some forty years ago. Lindqvist tries to add a few new twists, but Eli is not a strong enough presence to serve as the powerful emotional center to the story.
Compare this with, for example, Stephen King's It. Here King has such confidence in his writing that he devotes a hundred pages to describing his key characters going through the motions of packing and preparing to travel back to their home town—where the main action of the novel transpires. Most genre authors would devote no more than a few pages to this interlude, but King knows that his characters are so compelling that the reader will enjoy the back story and the details of their various domestic situations. And he’s absolutely right. King may be famous as a horror writer, but he doesn't need the horror to hold his audience—he could have succeeded in any other genre or style, because his mastery of the building blocks of storytelling is so complete. And when he does arrive at the scarier parts of the story, his readers are all the more riveted because they developed a personal attachment to his characters during these preparatory stages.
Lindqvist is not quite so self-assured. He believes that the bloody scenes of murder and vengeance are the anchors of his storytelling, and everything in-between works to get you to these key junctures. The writing here is mostly lackluster, and rarely goes much beyond conveying the essential details of plot. And, true, plot is essential to a genre novel, but there are plenty of horror and suspense novelists with strong, well-developed prose styles yet operate at a consistently higher level. Check out, for example, the works of Kathe Koja, Elizabeth Hand, David Wong, or the aforementioned King and Rice. The best horror authors of the current day realize—just as the medical profession learned a century ago—that mere bloodletting leads more often to weakness than vigor.
Lindqvist compensates to some extent through his skill at pacing, the range of the subplots, and the sheer boldness of his imagination. Some of the macabre twists—for example, the vampire without a face, or the spontaneous combustion scene—will stay with you long after you finished the book. Although, you may wish that they would disappear down the memory hole.
I’m not surprised that Let the Right One In served as inspiration for two successful movies. Director Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film adaptation of the novel won a number of awards, and spurred an Americanized version—the setting switched from Sweden to New Mexico—with the 2010 film Let Me In. Stephen King called the latter “the best American horror film in the last 20 years.” Alas, moviegoers disagreed. The film generated only $24 million in worldwide revenues despite distribution in more than 1,500 theaters.
Even so, if you view Lindqvist’s book as a script treatment, a preparation for translation on to the screen, it succeeds much better than as a standalone novel. His story possesses a strong visual component, and the threadbare prose is no longer an handicap when the tale is projected is realized in cinematic form. In this instance, you are advised to go straight to the movie versions, and bypass the book.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.
Publication Date: November 6, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia