Despite what the cover blurb and the recent wave of publicity may tell you, John Lindqvist has not 'reinvented the vampire novel'. He's done one better – he's brought it back to its roots in raw, visceral horror.
The story takes place in Blackeberg, a dingy suburb of Stockholm, and follows the lives of several loosely-related characters as they deal with social ills, addictions, depression, and the odd vampire attack. The central narrative revolves around Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy with a whole host of problems in his life: absentee father, clingy mother, vicious bullies at school. Things change when he meets and befriends Eli, a centuries-old vampire who has moved in next door. They grow together and develop a child-like, dependant relationship. The supporting cast include a paedophile who considers himself Eli's 'father', several schoolkids with troubles of their own, and a group of aging alcoholics – who have some of the best moments in the book.
The story is as grey, sprawling and dark as its setting. The characters are initially unrelated, but a local murder and the subsequent aftershocks weave their lives together, often in unexpected ways. The author expertly plants seeds early on the germinate into clever plot twists and revelations. While the novel is slow-paced in that relatively little action takes place, the character actions, thoughts and descriptions are so engaging that you're guaranteed to race through it.
Lindqvist's horror is pitch-perfect. It runs the whole gamut from subtly eerie descriptions to brutal physical violence. There are parts where you just want to switch all the light on and put the book down, and others where your face twists at the visceral, no-holds-barred gore. It really encapsulates the essence of what a vampire novel should be: a deadly dance between a grotesque, blood-addicted hunter and the naive, ignorant prey. Eli is truly an inhuman monster when she feeds. In addition, the setting itself has its own element of horror. Blackeberg is a dead-end place, ridden with alcoholism, abuse, prostitution and bottomless depression. Lindqvist skilfully captures the feel of a decaying society.
If the book has one failing, it's the English text itself. The translation is decent but hardly stellar, and the editing is atrocious, making the text almost unreadable in parts. For someone with a love of precision and language, this aspect was almost a deal-breaker. Errors such as unfinished sentences, malapropisms and bad punctuation (random commas, missing question marks and full stops) should never occur in a text. This smacks of a rush job, and it does the brilliant story an extraordinary disservice.
In all, the novel is highly recommended. It's a modern vampire story that borrows all the best elements from the classics. The people are lost and troubled, the world is dark and macabre, and the vampire is a consummate predator. No sparkles in sight.
(Låt den rätte komma in)
John Ajvide Lindqvist
English edition: Quercus, 2007
Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg