Handling the Undead
John Ajvide Lindqvist
It is not, I think, necessary to explain in fiction exactly why everything is the way that it is. The motiveless malice of Iago or Volpone are the more terrifying for not being explained as the result of a dysfunctional childhood or an overbearing parent. This certainly appears to be the case for Sweden’s own john Ajvide Lindqvist, who in Handling the Undead again neglects to explain why what happens does happen. In his first book, Let the Right One In, which is probably the best of his that I have read, there is no reason why there should suddenly be vampires in the world (Anne Rice memorably tried to justify the existence of her own bloodsuckers by tracing their history back to a primordial demonic curse of some sort). In Harbour, there is no explanation of the provenance of the mysterious deep sea presences that help shape the action. Here, when a subset of the recently deceased come back to life in some parts of Sweden, there is neither explanation nor any systematic attempt to find out what the cause might be. The focus is not on scientists or law enforcement or any form of government agency but a selection of those people who had been recently bereaved and would welcome being reunited with their loved one, irrespective of the circumstances.
Stories about zombies and other forms of the undead are terrifying not just because of the visceral horror of dealing with animated corpses but because they force us to confront, on the one hand, people we once knew acting in a horrifying way which might represent their real, previously suppressed personality and, on the other hand, business with the dead which we might have wished to remain in the grave (incidentally, there is no sign of life or unlife from those who had recently been cremated, which might give us all reason to pause). So it is here since the dead are not very active and do not seem to have anything going on in their minds. They have a tendency to walk to a place or a room which is of particular significance to them and just sit there, vacantly not staring at anything. An abusive husband, having emerged unwanted from the grave, provides a constant sense of as yet unrealized threat. A young boy, cruelly snatched from his family, offers a reminder of what they have lost rather than a consolation for the future. Other characters are forced to consider their own mortality as they see friends and colleagues struggling to adapt to change.
This is a good and readable book that does not overstay its welcome. It has been unobtrusively translated into English by Ebba Segerberg and I had not even noticed it was not in the original. Once the premise is established, the characters go through their personal arcs as the ramifications of the underlying premise are worked through and, once that has been achieved, as much development as is necessary takes place to allow the story to come to a conclusion. There are some quite interesting characters and the background of Sweden is brought out to advantage now and again. It is not a very profound book but it does its job well and I enjoyed it.