J.A. Lindqvist and The Swedish Legacy of Stephen King

I kind of stumbled onto John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel, Let the Right One In, in the English bookshop in my hometown in 2009. I hadn’t heard of him before, and was just browsing through the horror/fantasy/sci-fi section without really expecting to find anything. It had been a long while since I’d read anything good in the horror genre, and all the good stuff was not recent.

The cover blurbs were hailing him as the ‘Swedish Stephen King,’ so I bought the book with some trepidation. You don’t lightly compare someone with Stephen King. Turns out they were right, but only up to a point. Lindqvist certainly owes a lot to King, but he’s at this point a better writer than King has been in the last twenty years. In a way, it’s almost as if the Swede picked up where King left off some time in the early 90’s, after he finished The Green Mile.

Let the Right One In was a revelation on three fronts: it managed to inspire real terror in me; it exploited the vampire theme to perfection; and it hungrily ate away at the polished gloss of Swedish society as presented to the rest of the world through the media. (Something the late Stieg Larsson was also very good at.) Its spiritual predecessor is Salem’s Lot, not only because both books feature vampires, but also because they both so masterfully delve into the apathy/empathy dichotomy, a subject that haunts all their books.

Lindqvist also displays a marvellous unwillingness to treat his children characters with condescension, another trait he shares with King. For both authors, children are not innocent angels that need to be sheltered from the evils of the world – they are quite capable of consciously inflicting physical and emotional hurt on others, and wishing them harm. They understand that the universe is not about fair play.

Let the Right One In was followed by a fantastic screen adaptation in its home country, and a horrific one in the U.S., as is often the case when Hollywood feels the need to adapt original material to American audiences. I rank the Swedish film among the top 10 horrors of the last twenty years, and certainly among my all-time favorites.

I just finished reading Lindqvist’s third book, Harbour. Another horror. Lindqvist hasn’t written anything but horror so far. This one is about the dark depths of the sea, ghosts, and grief on an isolated island in the Stockholm Archipelago. I loved the setting because I visited said archipelago a few years ago, and was stunned by its stark beauty and simplicity of life compared to the sophistication of Stockholm. This is kind of where Lindqvist also starts from in the book, but the apparent idyll of life on the island is shown to be an illusion, a clever ruse meant to stave off the evil presence in the water.

The sea in Harbour is not as it is conventionally portrayed, a force of nature that can give but also take away. It is present in everything, yet also a mythical entity with will and intent, bent on intimidating the paltry humans, the late-comers in history who think they can exercise some measure of control over their lives and their surroundings. It brings nourishment and is essential to life, yet it also delivers poison, revenge, and madness. Life on this island is in psychological thrall to the past as regurgitated by the vicissitudes of the sea. There is no escape from the closed, endless loop, and any attempt to do so is severely punished. Very Melville.

Lindqvist can write terror. So vividly, in fact, that you are there in every scene. He builds it up slowly, ominously – it’s in the color of the sea and the glumness of fall in October, in the repetitive rhythms of the lighthouse beam, in the unfinished conversations – and then it grips you. Just like the early Stephen King. He can also write family, friendship, and small-town drama; all King hallmarks. But Lindqvist’s turns of phrase and cultural references are his own, and very distinctly European. It must be said, though, that his English translator has done him great justice.

I’m happy to have found a worthy successor to Stephen King.

Do you like to read horror stories? What are some of your favorites?

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