This review originally appeared in Black Static #15:-
HANDLING THE UNDEAD by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Quercus paperback, 364pp, £7.99
Stockholm is suffering an unseasonable heat wave, electrical appliances cannot be switched off and everyone has a blinding headache. Then to cap it all several thousand of the recent dead are returned to life, though unlike the zombies of horror cinema they are comparatively docile, returning to the places they knew before and acting out a dumb show of the life they once had. The government take charge, carting the dead off to a ‘concentration camp’ where they can be studied, but feelings among the living are divided, with fear and anger that erupts in violence at one end of the scale and at the other concern among relatives as to what is being done with their loved ones.
Lindqvist’s previous book, Let the Right One In, gave a new spin to the vampire story and here he attempts to do the same for zombie fiction, with a novel that in many ways reminded me of Dan Simmons’ classic story ‘The River Styx Runs Upstream’, in which the zombie condition was employed as a metaphor for senile dementia. Certainly there is something of this in the interactions various characters have with their deceased loved ones. Comedian David is the husband of the last person to die before this all started, his wife the closest to cogent articulation of the living dead, and he finds himself both resentful of the authorities and also of his wife herself for dying. His concern is to reconcile himself and his son to their loss, and try to find out what his wife herself wants. Mahler seizes on a chance to do the right thing and be reconciled with his emotionally estranged daughter, by digging up her recently deceased son and keeping the boy safe from the authorities. The two of them try to educate the child, to find some way to return him to the health he once enjoyed, but it’s a fruitless quest. Elvy gets drawn into a fantasy of the Rapture, and has visions of the Virgin Mary that lead her to become an evangelist, though she isn’t particularly successful in her mission, while granddaughter Flora investigates other possibilities, learning how the dead have an effect on the living, one that means their thoughts overlap and cause chaos.
All of these stories neatly intertwine, with an emotional acuity to each as the characters are brought to compelling life on the page, their pain and confusion portrayed in such a way that we seem to share in it. A case could be made for saying that all they are really trying to do is reach an accommodation with death, as all of must do when we lose those we love, with the difference that memories of the lost are given tangible form. And the big irony of the story is that in the end we do get the scenes of mayhem that are a staple of zombie cinema, but initiated by the living, who seem to have been programmed to respond in just such a way, are unable to cope with the situation unless they can lash out at some enemy, imagined or real. Undercutting all of this is a spiritual subtext, placing emphasis on the need to let go and be reconciled with mortality. The dead are animated by white caterpillars, and so we have the suggestion that our fleshy bodies are only chrysalides for the soul, though Lindqvist is ambiguous, with the materialists able to believe in a somewhat more earthy form of possession.
If I wanted to be pedantic I would say that the story fizzled out for lack of anywhere to go, but more accurately this is a book where the journey is the important thing, rather than the destination. Lindqvist doesn’t have any answers to what ails us, not even 42, only a parcel of questions by way of instigation for our own ponderings. He phrases them with eloquence and conviction in a story that captures the imagination.