Handling the Undead
John Ajvide Lindqvist
Thomas Dunne Books
Trade Paper, 384 pages, $14.99
Review by Sheila Merritt
[Editor’s Note: we originally published this review as part of the Book Review Project that we participate in every quarter. Since Handling the Undead will be released today as a trade paperback, we thought it was worthwhile to post the review again.]
Let the Right One In (also known as Let Me In) made novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist a horror fiction superstar. The book focused on relationships built on unusual devotion. In Handling the Undead, his second foray into the fantastic, Lindqvist again scrutinizes the complexities of constancy. Attachment and anxiety, dedication and death, fidelity and fear are examined. This thought provoking, and eerie, tale of dealing with the resurrected has enough jolting scenes to satisfy readers of dark fiction. It also possesses a poignancy that pushes it beyond genre boundaries. As one character summarizes: “Ultimately this is about love.”
The dead are rising in Stockholm, but aren’t hungry for brains; are not hungry for much of anything. They simply are. Given the name “the reliving,” they possess various degrees of receptivity and reaction. Some can verbalize, others are more vegetative. While this varies from individual to individual, the reliving are viewed as a collective; except by those who had lost them, and now have them back in altered form. Told predominantly from the point of view of three households, this confrontation between the living and the living dead begets a myriad of feelings. Hope and despair walk hand in hand, as similarities and differences become delineated.
In the case of David, the sudden loss of his wife generates havoc. When she comes back to life, he initially is grateful. They have a young son, and David can’t envision raising the child as a single parent. Despite his wife’s horrific disfigurement from the car accident that “killed” her, he grasps at possibilities for normalcy. Reality sets in with a vengeance, however, when their son visits his changed mother. Despair triumphs on that day, the boy’s birthday: In a harrowing scene, innocence is lost and optimism vanquished.
Another family, Mahler and his daughter Anna, mourn the death of Elias; their grandson and son, respectively. Mahler is a freelance reporter who has heard of the dead returning. He ravages the grave of Elias, and finds an abhorrent corpse. Still, he brings the body home; its dwarf-like appearance and repugnant smell do not deter him. Anna, who has been in deep depression since the kid’s passing, has issues with her father. They unify, in a sense, when Elias returns. He remains semi-comatose, but can periodically telepathically communicate with Anna. The telepathic phenomenon also comes into play as a conduit among the living. Proximity to the undead induces the ability to pick up thoughts and receive mental images; reflections and concerns of their kindred. For both the living and reliving, the invasive noise of violated introspection, and the intensity of the imagery, overwhelms. In a crowd, it creates a cacophony of chaos.
Psychic proclivities are qualities that Flora, an anti-establishment young woman, and Elvy, her spiritually oriented grandmother, have possessed for years. Their views regarding the resurrection reflect their diverse natures: Grandma spouts the scriptures, and talks of the second coming. Flora sees the grittiness and grief beneath the surface. As she evaluates The Heath, where the reliving are sequestered, she concludes: “Every speck of dirt had been removed from the walkways and the smell of disinfectant hovered in the air. The apartments had been set up nicely, cleaned; the dead had been given somewhere to live and it was simply new graves. Sit still in the grave, staring at an endlessly repeated motion. Hell.”
Flora’s negative perception is backed up by Mahler’s experience when he first encountered the reanimated at a hospital. In his guise as a newsman, he makes the following disturbing observations: “Bare skin everywhere. Almost all of the dead had managed to rid themselves of their shrouds, and the sheets lay strewn across benches and floor. A toga party that had spiraled out of control into an orgy.” In addition to the visceral visuals, he is privy to audible atrocity: “A whimpering and howling as if a football team of newborns had been thrown into the same room and told to express their terror and astonishment at the world they’d come to. Come back to.”
John Ajvide Lindqvist is a master of characterization. He exhibits a crackerjack proficiency at honing in on vulnerabilities and innate abilities for adaptation. As with Let the Right One In, which invokes the pleas “let me in” and “let the right one in,” Handling the Undead makes it own plea: “Let me go.” Words that are uttered by those who come back to life, to the grieving who hold and cling too tightly. The novel shivers the spine and hooks the heart.