Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Swedish Meatbags

Let Me In (aka Let the Right One In) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the original Swedish by Ebba Segerberg (2004): Well, if you're going to do a vampire love story, this would be one of the models for how to do it. Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old boy in a Scarborough-like suburb in Sweden in 1981, makes friends with a peculiar girl who only comes out at night and, initially, smells really horrible. The girl calls herself Eli. She's a vampire. Things good and bad begin to happen. Mostly good for Oskar and Eli, mostly bad for everybody else.

Lindqvist, who adapted his own novel for the immensely good Swedish film adaptation Let the Right One In, is well-versed in the horror genre without slavishly imitating anything. There are sly direct nods to Stephen King and James Herbert, along with allusions to H.P. Lovecraft's malign geometries, Richard Matheson's vampire classic I am Legend, and Shirley Jackson's sinister Hill House.

Like King, Lindqvist has published a first novel concerned with the traumatic effects of bullying and social ostracism on children. This is a distaff Carrie, though it also examines the effects of a vampire's presence on a small community, as did King's second published novel, Salem's Lot. The superficial resemblances are bolstered by Lindqvist's interest with the intersection of the supernatural and the mundane, and by his sympathetically drawn characters.

There's a bleakness to many sections of this novel that goes beyond anything in early King, though -- the secret origin of Eli, never shown in the movie, horrifies and repels. So too does the back-story of Eli's middle-aged companion at the beginning of the novel. Unspeakable rites glimpsed in Salem's Lot are here fully shown. Lindqvist's changes to the climax of the novel when adapting it for film are perfectly understandable -- I'm not sure what happens could be shown, or even implied, in a film meant for a wide release.

Throughout, we gain understanding and sympathy for lonely Oskar and lonely Eli and a few other characters, most notably Tommy, an apartment-mate of Oskar's who, while a tough teenager, isn't a bully, and is really Oskar's only friend when the novel starts, despite their difference in age. Oskar's enemies don't elicit much sympathy, but Lindqvist does firmly establish where their concluding, homicidal rage will come from, if it comes. There's empathy for the little monsters, but they're still monsters. Unlike Eli, they're not doing the things they do in order to eat.

Much of the engagement with the supernatural in the novel comes from either the young or the old, the latter represented by a loose-knit group of retirees and socially excluded men (and a woman) in their middle age. The liminal, the excluded, the forgotten and never-remembered, can see what's happening more clearly than the adult world and all the authorities. Eli murders decent people in order to survive. Will she be caught? Do we want her to be? Highly recommended.

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