I’m a slow reader these days. Well, more like incredibly distracted. For whatever reason, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to make time to read in the old-fashioned way — you know, like turning typeset ink pages of bound paper? If only there were a device that let me read books electronically…
Anyway, I’ve had the idea to do a Contrarian Book Club for a while, but it just seems too hard to organize. So instead, we’ll publish Contrarian Book Reports, where the gang and I can weigh in on whatever it is we’re reading. We’ll probably never be able to keep up with our pal Blog-Sothoth, who seems to digest a book a week. Still, we can try and fail above expectations. (My life mission in a nutshell.)
As I previously mentioned, I’ve most recently been reading Let the Right One In — an unusual vampire novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. I’m a huge fan of the film adaptation (also Svensk), which is a gorgeously minimal tale of childhood alienation and endearment. The movie concerns the relationship between Oskar and Eli, the former the victim of schoolyard bullying; the latter a child vampire. The tenderness displayed between these two characters — both of whom are outcasts for entirely different reasons — is touching, provocative and subtly creepy.
When the book arrived, I was struck by how thick it was. I knew the movie left out a lot, but it’s so damn perfect! Surely, I thought, the novel would be full of extraneous verbiage. I was happy to be proven wrong.
I began reading Let the Right One In about a month ago and was immediately taken by the cleanliness of the prose, lucid even in translation. Lindqvist moves effortlessly between characters, employing third-person omniscient to get us inside the heads of the Nordic ne’er-do-wells that populate his tale. And there are a lot more of them here than in the movie.
In the film, Eli is assisted by a middle-aged man who murders people and drains their blood to take back to his vampire master. Hakan, as this character is called, goes about his tasks with a grim determination, but the details of his relationship with Eli are never fully revealed. How long has he had this gig? Was there someone that did the job before? What’s in it for him? Like many other ambiguities in the film — Eli’s gender in particular — the vagueness of Hakan’s connection to his undead sovereign makes for a deeply thought-provoking film.
As expected, the book is more explicit. Although every scene in the movie comes from its pages, there is so much more that remained unfilmed. Without spoiling anything, I can say that Hakan’s relationship to Eli is as disturbing as anything else in the book. This schlubby, middle-aged loser is a pedophile who had hit rock bottom shortly before Eli appeared in his life. Yet Hakan, monster that he is, is not entirely unsympathetic. Wracked with guilt yet unable to consummate his deviant urges, he dreams only that his master will let him be physically closer to her — if only for one night. Eli manipulates Hakan’s desire to get him to kill for her. But it’s not just because she’s too fragile to do it herself, or the fact that she seems to abhor killing as much as Hakan. Mostly, Eli is wary of “infecting” others, a concern that is eliminated if Hakan does the deed.
There are other characters that are either not in the film, or play a much more subdued role: the townies, the cops, the bully kids. Lindqvist nimbly moves through and around these souls, giving the reader a sense of their motivation. Each of the individuals in his book is flawed, though he is careful to avoid a detached or ironic tone common to other narratives featuring defective characters. Instead, Lindqvist lets the reader briefly occupy their psyches, providing a window into their lamentable lives.
Sweden in 1981 (when the tale takes place) is probably not unlike, say, the Northeast of America in the same period — a place and time where I did my growing up. The author’s surprisingly tender take on the pathos of lower-middle class life is affecting, and the horror, well . . . let’s just say it’s eerily intimate.
Lindqvist has been called the “Swedish Stephen King” — a comparison of convenience made by book reviewers that in many ways rings true. The parallels are particularly striking in the book’s final act, when chaos descends on the town of Blackeberg, engulfing each of the protagonists in a maelstrom of action and reaction. Here, Let the Right One In is unequivocally more grisly than it’s cinematic namesake. I won’t spoil it for you, so let’s just say that it’s a stomach-turning ride.
Let the Right One In was a wonderful autumn read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it left me craving more scary stories, so next on my list is a tale of real-world horror, The Family: a nonfiction account of a network of fundamentalist Christians populated by elite political power players which includes a shocking number of US Congressmen. Now, we’re talking spooky.