Let the Old Dreams Die by John Ajvide Lindqvist is a horrifying and chilling short fiction anthology, translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg (available October 1, 2013).
Before I started this collection, John Ajvide Lindqvist was a writer I knew only through acquaintance with the 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In. The movie, adapted from his novel of the same name, impressed me a lot. It has a gritty, realistic feel, despite its supernatural elements, and it uses the horror genre both to deliver gory shocks and to develop sympathetic characters. If the book is anything like the movie, I thought when I saw it, this writer is damn good.
Suspicion confirmed. Let the Old Dreams Die is a collection of twelve stories by Lindqvist, and all the strengths that were apparent in his vampire story are on hand here.
Everything for him begins with intriguing characters. In the first tale, “The Border,” a female customs officer named Tina has a sixth sense that makes her great at her job. She can feel it in her bones when people are hiding things. Despite her professional renown, she's a lonely person in a drab relationship— that is, until she meets a man passing through customs who upends her entire existence. This is a story that goes in a direction I didn't anticipate at all, and as it unfolds, connecting Tina's abilities to Nature, I was reminded of the classic British horror writer Arthur Machen (best known for his novella The Great God Pan). There is also a sexual component to the story that would make Clive Barker proud. It's not that the sex is especially graphic, but it is about how the needs of the body lead to unexpected transformation. “The Border” has a premise poised on the cusp of absurdity, but the richness of Tina as a person, the way you root for her as she struggles, make this story engrossing.
“A Village in the Sky” highlights another strong aspect of Lindqvist's writing— dark humor. A man living in a high-rise in a Swedish city starts to suspect something is off about the building's geometry. As if that's not creepy enough, the building's configuration seems to keep changing. This idea of non-Euclidean, or monstrous, geometry evokes the work of H.P. Lovecraft, as does the man's fear of rats living in the spaces between the building's walls. But that's where the story's humor comes in; even as the man obsesses over what might be wrong with his living area, he imagines this:
... an army of rats chewing their way through the concrete, perforating the building like a roll of toilet paper and causing it to give way, to lean. Al-Qaeda rats that worked with a long-term goal. He snorted when he visualized rats in turbans and beards infiltrating the shadowy buildings of the west.
A truly Lovecraftian creature finds this man at the story's end, but the final point about the anonymity of life in a modern, apartment complex is the larger horror.
Angles and curves, distorted space, also figure in “Tindalos,” a novella-length tale about a mother and wife fighting to keep a lifelong fear at bay. The title comes from “The Hounds of Tindalos,” a story by Frank Belknap Long, a Lovecraft friend and disciple. Vera, the main character, actually reads the Long story as she tries to comprehend the secret behind the chewing noise that has followed her for years, but here again, what makes the story click is the naturalistic grounding under the horror. Vera has an unfaithful husband, two headstrong daughters, and memories that haunt her. The terrors she must confront seem like emanations of life itself. As with Tina in “The Border,” you read fully engaged with the character, hoping she can find at least a modicum of peace and safety in her life.
An aspect of these stories that I loved is how they exhibit sympathy for outsiders. Misfits are Lindqvist's people. Let the Right One In used a vampire tale to explore a relationship between a bullied twelve year-old boy and a vampire girl who comes to protect him. We are completely on their sides when they wreak havoc on the boy's enemies. These stories do something similar. In every one, Lindqvist makes us care about people at odds with the mainstream world. As his narrator in “Equinox” says of her husband:
I liked him because he was simple and imperfect, damaged like me. Another human being.
She's being honest about herself, that's for sure. “Equinox” is the collection's most chilling story, a look at a woman who becomes enamored of a dead male body in a neighboring house. What's remarkable is that her feelings are believable, even though she has a solid marriage and devotes herself to her kids. The ordinary just isn't enough. Indeed, many of the characters in this book strive for something beyond the everyday, and Lindqvist fearlessly follows them there, consequences be damned. A refusal to abide society's rules certainly animates the women in “Majken,” who take their credo from The Smiths's song “Shoplifters of the World, Unite.” This is one of my favorite stories in the collection, more a weird crime tale than a horror tale per se, its power is fueled by a spirit of revenge against economic imbalance:
Majken drew a breath and asked, “Dolly. Do you think that life has been fair to you?”
“That depends on what you mean by fair.”
“No splitting hairs now. Life, society, people, whatever you want to call it. Has it or they given you what you deserve? Have you been able to shape your life the way you wanted to, or have you always lived under the kind of pressure that stems from the necessity of making money for others?
Weird fiction with a political slant? Well, sort of. And the same applies to the zombie epic, “Final Processing,” in which a young man besotted by a rebellious woman helps the woman in her quest to aid victimized zombie hordes confined by shadowy corporate forces. This is the bloodiest story of the bunch, as well as a sequel to Lindqvist's novel Handling the Undead, and it serves to highlight Lindqvist's weaknesses as well as his strengths. When Lindqvist delves deep into character and lets his stories evolve from a person's anguish and obsessions, he is at his best. In overall plotting, and in some cases endings, he can be less compelling. But it's obvious that he has a lively imagination, and what I found most refreshing about these tales is that I couldn't predict in a single one where the narrative thread would end. The stories take odd detours and turns and keep you off balance. In a genre overstuffed with predictable tropes and cliched patterns, he calls upon horror's traditions to convey a confidently personal vision.
It's a wet vision, by the way, and I mean that literally. Water figures prominently in a number of these stories, and it's not exactly water as the bringer of life. In “Eternal Love,” for example, the sea takes on a malevolent force that dictates the choices of the two main characters, and I was somehow not surprised to learn, on reading up about Lindqvist, that his own father drowned several years ago.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the collection's title story, a follow-up to Let the Right One In. Horror in this tale is only alluded to; the story focuses on a subway ticket seller from Blackeberg (the town where the vampire novel took place), a police detective who investigated the vampire attacks, and a train ticket collector who lived through the events. I found this story to be a poignant meditation on love, aging, and friendship, and it concludes in a way that is both beautiful and chilling. It also brings closure to certain points that the novel left open.
I read part of this book at night while camping out on Cape Cod. I'm sure that added to my tension as I read, but mostly the scares and disorientation resulted from Lindqvist's skill alone. He's a topnotch practitioner of the weird/horror tale, his hits in this book far outnumbering the misses. It had been a while since I read any horror (a genre I've loved since childhood), and I was glad to reconnect with the monsters and frights through a writer at home in the realm of fear.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.