Usually in this blog, I try to keep my reviews to current releases, which makes sense because I rarely “go back in time” to try to catch up with books I’ve missed. This October, however, I broke that rule and picked up Handling the Undead, a book that was released a year ago. I did this for three reasons. First, it was October, and I wanted to spend the entire month reading only horror (with the exception of our Book Club book). Second, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first American release, Let Me In, is one of my all-time favorite vampire novels, and I felt bad that I hadn’t yet found time to read his second book. Finally, I wanted to mention Let Me In in this review, because I liked it a whole lot better than Handling the Undead, and I want people to read it. I may even mention the two movie versions at the end of this review, so keep reading…
Handling the Undead is a zombie novel, yes, but at first glance, it is a kinder, gentler zombie novel with an unusual premise: what happens when everyone in town who died in the past two months starts coming back to life? And what if these walking dead aren’t dangerous, but merely confused? Do you take in your recently deceased father who stumbles back home and try to care for him? And what about the dead who have already been buried? Do you dig them up and save them from the confusion of waking up underground? How exactly do you handle the undead?
It is August 2002 in Stockholm, Sweden. One day the citizens in and around the area of Stockholm begin to experience strange phenomenon: blazingly painful headaches, electrical appliances and lights that refuse to turn off, and a loud buzzing noise that won’t stop. All over the city, fat white worms fall from the sky and burrow into graves, presumably bringing the dead back to life (although this is never fully explained). The dead awaken, and they want one thing: to go home.
The story alternates among three groups of characters and their individual experiences. David, whose wife Eva is killed in a car accident shortly after the dead rise, and comes back to life in the morgue; Elvy and her granddaughter Flora and Elvy’s recently deceased husband Tore who shows up on their doorstep; and Mahler, a reporter who decides to exhume his beloved dead grandson.
Mahler’s story in particular is the most emotionally engaging and elevates the book above normal zombie fare. His grief for his grandson Elias is still fresh (Elias died from a fall off a balcony while trying to catch a ladybug). Mahler realizes early on what is happening, and goes to the cemetery where Elias is buried, digs him up, and brings him home. Mahler’s daughter Anna, Elias’ mother, is appalled to see her son in this condition, since he has been dead for two months and looks it, but her motherly urges kick in and she and Mahler begin the task of not only keeping Elias hidden from the authorities, who are trying to round up the dead and put them in a holding cell, but bringing Elias back to his former state by feeding him salt water.
Like the shambling dead, the pace of the story was slow and lurching. I was on edge waiting for something horrific to happen, and it isn’t until near the end that we learn a dreadful truth: the walking dead are meek and harmless as long as the citizens of Stockholm are thinking nice thoughts. But when people become angry and start to threaten the dead, the dead strike back, and their true zombie nature comes out. The walking dead, you see, can communicate telepathically with the living. Once the anger and fear start spreading, things begin to quickly deteriorate, and patient readers will finally get the carnage they have come to expect from zombies.
In comparison to Handling the Undead, if I had reviewed Lindqvist’s vampire story Let Me In I would have given it five stars, so if you love vampire stories and the creepiness of Swedish novels, I highly recommend Let Me In, which is more atmospheric and dark, and has a more straight-forward narrative with less characters to contend with. Whether you read the novel or not, please consider watching the two movie versions, Swedish and American, which in my opinion are equally brilliant. The Swedish version, which was retitled Let the Right One In, should be watched with subtitles, rather than the dubbed cut which just sounds ridiculous. The American remake (which uses the original title) is just as good; in fact the two movies seem to have the exact same script and mirror each other scene for scene.
Halloween is over for another year, but don’t let that stop you from indulging in some great horror, either in the form of a book or a movie. As for me, I will make sure to read Lindqvist’s next book as soon as it comes out…