Handling the Undead
John Adjvide Lindqvist
St. Martins, 2010ho
So my Halloween horror reading is going slowly. The Great Email Hacking of 2010 has caused my interactions with internet over the last few weeks to be a bit tentative at best not to mention that The Terror by Dan Simmons isn’t the most fast paced novel and is about as slow moving as the arctic ice it’s set in, but more on that later. For those that don’t know John Adjvide Lingvist is the author who wrote the novel called Let the Right One In/Let Me In which was then turned into a Swedish film and recently “localized” (almost shot-for-shot from what I’ve heard) in an American remake. Handling the Undead is Lingvist’s second novel and takes the same subtle and human approach to vampirism he used in his debut and this time applies it to zombies.
One of the most wonderful things about Let the Right One In (I’m talking about the film since I never did get around to reading the book) is the inversion of the human/monster binary. Oskar and Eli’s relationship is predicated on a very human need to connect with another person. Oskar’s alienation and outsider status as a result of his bullying parallels Eli’s isolation due to her nature. The cruelty and violence of Oskar’s schoolmates contrasts the violence of Eli’s lifestyle; one is a necessity for survival while the other borders on the inhuman, I’ll let you guess which is which. In a similar vein Linqvist focuses on the human response to a zombie outbreak. The zombies of Handling the Undead don’t have a craving for brains or random violence and the mystery behind their existence, while central to the story, takes a back seat to the examination of the effect elicited by the sudden reappearance of a loved one.
By and large Handling the Undead follows that effect on three different families. There is David Hanson, a stand-up comic whose wife Eva’s sudden death occurs right at the outset of the outbreak. Mahler, a reporter, whose grandson Elias passed away several months prior to the outbreak. Elvy and Flora and grandmother and granddaughter who have both found different ways to cope with what they believe is a psychic ability. Each of these diverse groups react in different ways to the sudden reappearance of their loved ones; yet for many the central tenant of their stories remains the same. This is particularly the case when it comes to David and Mahler. For David the sudden death and resurrection of his wife gives him little if any time to come to grips with the death of his wife. Mahler, whose reason for living centered on his grandson is struggling with letting go and moving on with his life. For both these storylines Lindqvist adeptly conjures the sensation of watching an inevitable train wreck. There is never an outright sensation of dread or fear but rather Lindqvist manages a sense of extreme foreboding focused on the emotional impact of the newly risen dead.
Elvy and Flora’s stories are distinctly different from Mahler and David. The event that precedes the outbreak, a strange surge of power across the city alongside increasingly painful headaches, interacts with the aforementioned psychic abilities of Elvy and Flora. Elvy, who has thrown herself into religion reads the return of the dead as a hint at the coming Resurrection of Jesus. On the other hand Flora, who copes with her ability to sense the thoughts and emotions of others through loud music and video games, is the remains rather more skeptic. Where as the stories of David and Mahler focus on the emotional and psychological impact of the undead Elvy, and especially Flora’s, narrative takes on a more investigative air.
As I mentioned what Handling the Undead doesn’t do is create an outright sense of fear. On film Let the Right One In set a measure pace laden with air of oppression and fear and with Handling the Undead that is most definitely not the case. Certainly there are moments when tension builds but that tension never capitulates into outright fear. There are certainly moment’s of horror, and moments that play upon familiar horror tropes with a new twist but they are typically short and all too breif. In one particularly genius bit of inversion there is a moment where a horde of humans descends viciously on a horde of hapless zombies. Let me tell you that is a sentence I never thought I’d write.
If you’ve started groaning whenever you start seeing the z-word Handling the Undead might be the title necessary to cleanse your pallet. No ragtag survivors, no gore, no shady military organizations Handling of the Undead skillfully dodges clear around the cliches and conventions of zombie fiction to blaze its own trail. It isn’t a novel that will scare you nor one that will have you squirming in your seat out of disgust or unease. It will lure you with its mystery and well-rounded characters though it is a novel that remains secure in its belief in the inviolability of the unexplainable and the inexplicable. Handling of the Undead may not quite succeed as horror fiction but as fiction it provides a fascinating look, and an almost meta-commentary, on how our own preconceptions and thoughts (both conscious and subconscious) shape the world around us.