A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 20th of January this year:-
A new year and a new me, who feels that it might be time to climb back on the Late Review horse and see how long I can remain in the saddle this go round before other demands on my time bring it all to a shuddering halt.
We’ll start the 2020 campaign with LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES (Quercus hc, 456pp, £16.99) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a writer who’s been labelled the Swedish Stephen King by some. I haven’t as yet read the book which made his reputation, vampire novel Let the Right One In, though I have seen and adored the film version (the Swedish original, not the US remake), but for my thoughts on a couple of his other novels see the links in the index. Released by Quercus in 2012, Let the Old Dreams Die is a reissue of a collection that was originally published in Swedish in 2006 as Pappersväggar (Paper Walls), with the addition of the title story. Marlaine Delargy does the translation honours.
Tina, the protagonist of ‘Border’ (also made into a film, which I recommend seeking out) was disfigured by a lightning strike as a child, but by way of compensation she has an almost supernatural ability to sniff out smugglers, making her role as a border guard at a customs post work superbly well. With the arrival of the man Vore, who has a secret she cannot uncover, Tina is set on a path that leads her not only to question what she is doing with her life but to discover the secrets of her past. This novella length story is a superb opener to a very strong collection. Characterisation is pitched perfectly, both as regards Tina’s “outsider”psychology and that of those around her, especially her ailing father and often absent partner Roland who do good service as sounding boards for reader and protagonist alike. Tina is the epitome of the outsider, an alien in her own skin. Having given us such an intriguing scenario Lindqvist goes even further, offering a variation on the archetypal story of the changeling, presenting a world that is very different from the one we think we live in, understand and control. The monsters presented here are, in their way, far more human and deserving than those we regard as our own kind. I loved it.
In ‘Village on the hill’ Joel notices something odd about the apartment block in which he lives. Lindqvist gives us plenty of hints and suggestions of something seriously awry, the story a perfect example of quiet horror in its early stages, these simply lulling both Joel and the reader into a false sense of insecurity before the shattering and bloody developments that herald the story’s denouement. ‘Equinox’ is the tale of a woman who becomes obsessed with a corpse she finds in an empty house, only to find that her interest is resented by the deceased. Lindqvist does so much right here, capturing perfectly the psychology of his crossword compiling protagonist and her love of word games, the boredom that drives her on, and counterpointing this with the mystery of the dead man who isn’t, putting a chill in our hearts at the unnaturalness of it all, only to then deliver an ending that calls everything into question.
A desperate paparazzi falls prey to a creature that lures him in with hallucinations in ‘Can’t see it! It doesn’t exist!’, the story building well and unpacking its surprises with real aplomb, the character of the photog drawn in subtle brush strokes. The ‘Substitute’ is a teacher, recalled many years later by a former pupil who has spent time in mental health institutions, and who believes that she was a lot more (and less) than she seemed. There is a Dickian feel to this story, a suggestion of existential crisis and that the reality we think we know is a sham, that other things are seeping through and taking over our dimension. It is a story that lays down its propositions with enviable panache, gradually constructing a case for the outré that is hard to refute. Anna and Josef have the perfect relationship, but they wish for ‘Eternal/Love’, and after a near death experience at sea Josef thinks that he may have found a way to conquer Death. This was a fascinating story on the theme of be careful what you wish for, with the relationship between the two leads drawn in convincing depth and the steps that lead to immortality portrayed in a way that makes it all seem horribly plausible, with obsession taking root as the rot at the heart of a previously idyllic existence. As ever when such bargains are made with fate and mortality there are consequences that are unlooked for and unwelcome.
A sequel to Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, ‘Let the old dreams die’ is told from the viewpoint of a friend of a couple, one of whom was a police officer investigating the original case. It is a perfect picture of love and domesticity, interwoven with a mystery that defies the laws of science, and with a resolution that offers equal parts hope and despair. Written in an amiable, easygoing style it effortlessly holds the attention from first word to last. Presented in the form of one side of a dialogue, ‘To hold you while the music plays’ is the shortest and least successful of what’s on offer here, a bit too oblique for my taste. I’d guess that it’s the ‘monologue’ of a man wishing to be crucified, but I’m far from sure, and regardless of whether I’m right or wrong it doesn’t really work all that well.
One of the highlights of this collection, and gratifyingly upbeat, ‘Majken’ is like a Fight Club for the older woman, with a gang of women organising elaborate robberies as a front for their real aims. It’s an engrossing, fascinating story, one with engaging characters and a marvellous plot, plus a subtext with which many readers will find themselves in sympathy. ‘Paper walls’ tells of a boy who goes camping in a cardboard box and the unknown creature that came to him in the night. It’s well written but didn’t really go anywhere to my mind, the situation set up with finesse but not much delivered in the way of a payoff.
Finally we have another novella ‘The final processing’, which is a companion piece to Lindqvist’s zombie novel Handling the Undead. Kalle gets work as a delivery boy to the Heath where the bodies of the undead are being held and experimented on by a mad scientist of sorts. He falls in with a group who wish to reunite the undead with their souls and save them from the proverbial fate worse than death. This is another winner, a lengthy story with larger than life characters, such as fading rock star Roland and hippie chick Flora, while in the enigmatic Visitor it has a monster of truly memorable potency. Underlying it all is a strand of spirituality and metaphysics that helps to raise the story above the schlock fare often served up under the zombie label.
Rounding it all out are some words by Lindqvist detailing a few of his own obsessions/concerns and explaining how the stories came to be written, and also giving us his thoughts on the end to the film of Let the Right One In and how it was not what he had envisaged for the characters. It offers a fascinating codicil to an exceptional collection of short stories from a writer with an intriguingly different take on the stuff of horror, one that at its finest addresses philosophical themes but doesn’t shy away from the wet work when necessary either.