Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Why did I read it? Because I caught parts of the Swedish film version and thought it a beautiful story and presentation. It helped it was available on audio. I am not a fan of vampire stories, but this one was intriguing; the supernatural element was not the focus.
What is it about? Oskar is a young boy, living with his mother in Sweden, his father having left him and the family home. Oskar is an avid collector of gruesome stories from newspapers, perhaps to gain information on how to avenge himself on his tormentors, the school bullies. A loner with only one neighbour who deigns to talk to him, when new residents move into the apartment next door, he finds himself sharing his lonely playground with a strange youngster, Eli, who immediately informs him they cannot be friends. Gruesome murders start to occur in nearby suburbs as a Rubik’s cube becomes a catalyst for the growing relationship between Oskar and Eli.
What did I like? John Ajvide Lindqvist has a real flare for examining human nature, and he does so by contrasting it with supernatural elements. Seeing ourselves from the point of view of a “monster” provides a unique insight into self-created horror. As lurid and gruesome as the killings are, it is nothing compared with to the worst kind of human behaviour – paedophilia, bullying, emotional torture – all of which play a part in Oskar and Eli’s story. As the “monster”, Eli is probably the most sympathetic character in the book, apart from Oskar and, by the end, my heart hurt for them both. It’s easy to identify with Oskar, the lonely, tormented boy swallowing, and keeping all the hurt life sends his way to himself, but to get readers to identify, empathise with Eli is a master stroke by the author.
Another resident of Oskar’s apartment complex is the older teenager, Tommy, who tolerates and feels a little protective of Oscar, but he is tied up in the teenage world of sniffing glue and petty thievery, and avoiding the notice his mother’s new partner, Staffan, a policeman. We also meet a (rather sad) group of friends who meet in a nearby Chinese restaurant: Lacke, an alcoholic, his girlfriend Virginia and the rest of the motley crew, all of whom seem to be outsiders with small, unhappy lives. It is Lacke who meets Eli’s odious companion, Håkan, and starts to make the connection between the murders, Håkan and Eli. Lacke is also one who surprises in that his behaviour changes, and, again I could feel sympathy for him, though I didn’t at first. This is John Ajvide Lindqvist trump card: he made me feel for people like Tommy and Lacke, people I would not normally consider given first impressions; impressions he sets at the beginning of the book.
John Ajvide Lindqvist blends the real and the supernatural perfectly, contrasting and exposing the base aspects of both. Monsters are still monsters, humans can be vile, and though some characters alter their behaviour, they don’t stray from their essentials. In this, Lindqvist has my respect, as I am averse to the modern fascination with turning monsters (read: vampires/werewolves) into romantic idols. Throughout the book, the tale of the scorpion and the frog hovered in my conscience. “The fable is used to illustrate the position that the behaviour of some creatures is irrepressible, no matter how they are treated and no matter what the consequences.”
The descriptions of the killings are explicit, gruesome and pure horror, as are the thoughts and actions of Håkan, Eli’s grown up companion and helper – a paedophile. That said, it helps to show that the real monsters are the people, even some of the children. Many passages are almost unreadable, too uncomfortable and confronting – yet these left me questioning my own pleasure at the fate of some of the characters. Am I a monster, too? By the end of the book, I found myself really thinking about the fates of all the characters. Was it right that happened to them? How will if affect their future? What kind of future could that character have? Isn’t this just a cycle continuing itself?
The beauty of this book is that it’s not just a horror, a supernatural or fantasy tale. It’s been a month since I read it and, on learning about a competition to write about the fate of Oskar and Eli, I am still pondering the possibilities. Life isn’t about happy endings, the human race is slow to develop, evolve and, to that end, can be self-destructive. I am also still questioning my own reactions to the characters.
Despite the subject matter, Let the Right One In, is one of the most beautiful, and powerful books/stories I’ve read (listened to) in years. It’s a re-read, just as the Swedish film is to be viewed several times and is just as beautiful and senstive, if heavily redacted.
The audio version I listened to was narrated by Steven Pacey, and it was a good performance, even if I wasn’t quite happy with the speech pattern he ascribed to Oskar. Steven‘s tone was warm, which helped to alleviate some of the coldness invoked during the most horrific moments; it made them just that bit more tolerable, which was necessary so as not to miss the gist of the story. The audio version I listened to from Audible was clear, with good editing and a level volume.
What didn’t I like? If only the story could have been done without the lurid, and detailed descriptions, but I truly feel this was unavoidable. I am not a horror fan, and the only other book in this genre I’ve read was Stephen King‘s “It“, a gripping tale, but one which brought me to the realisation I didn’t have the stomach, or the mind-set for the genre. I am acutely aware just how little detail I can stomach when it comes to aspects of human anatomy when torn apart, and other, less savoury matters like the predilections of Håkan. Oh, how I wish Håkan was not necessary to the book either. My own inner questioning was also (and still is) incredibly unsettling, but welcome given the themes of the book; I just didn’t/don’t like it.
Would I recommend it? Yes, but you really ought to have a strong constitution.