Reviewed by Ian Giles in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s latest release in Sweden saw the light of day just in time to provide small doses of horror to readers heading to the beach this summer. This substantial volume contains seven short stories portraying everyday Sweden with a touch of the supernatural – though the last one, ‘Tjärven’, is actually a novella at 150 pages.
Adding further to the pick ’n’ mix nature of this book is the publication history of each component. The first story, ‘Havssvalget’ (Boy Overboard), has thus far only been published in Norwegian. ‘Varför dröjde du?’ (What Kept You So Long?) and ‘Vad mig tillkommer’ (‘Come Unto Me’) have only appeared in English, both translated by Marlaine Delargy (published in Seize the Night, Gallery Books, 2015 and Fearie Tales, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013), while ‘Speciella omständigheter’ (Special Circumstances) has previously featured in Sweden’s excellent Novellix series. ‘Våran hud, vårat blod, våra ben’ (The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer), also translated by Marlaine Delargy, was published in A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, and has already been nominated for best short story at the British Fantasy Awards. The seventh story, ‘Tjärven’ (Tjärven), has previously come out in e-book and audiobook format only. Similarly, the very short story ‘Mitt jullov’ (My Christmas Holidays), an unlisted bonus, has previously appeared online and in Dagens Nyheter. This leaves ‘Hår’ (Hair) as the only brand new work, apart from the thoughtful afterword. However, this by no means diminishes the value of a book that offers Swedish and English readers alike plenty of new material.
Lindqvist makes excellent use of genre fiction as a vehicle for the depiction of life in contemporary Sweden. Every single story focuses on ordinary, everyday characters living perfectly normal lives that briefly intersect with the supernatural, the horrible, and the unlikely. Whether it is the young boy – seemingly possessed or perhaps inhuman – who controls the fate of a ferry to Finland, the lorry driver who happens to be a vampire and meets his match, or the family industry controlled not by shadowy corporate interests but by a tomte (elf), Lindqvist manages to convince the reader that the events described could very well be happening in the dullest of suburbs or most picturesque tourist hotspot somewhere in Sweden at this very moment.
The author has been quoted as viewing the short story from which the book draws its title as the most frightening thing he has ever written. Conversely, he notes in his afterword that ‘Speciella omständigheter’ – written in just three days after he couldn’t sleep – is a rarity for its lack of blood, violence or monsters. Yet this, if anything, is the most uncomfortable tale in the book.
Following in the footsteps of other genre fiction pioneers in Sweden, Lindqvist is not afraid to make use of plain humour or the outright absurd when it suits him. The tone adopted in ‘Tjärven’ is at times laconic, with the characters’ troubles caused by Ålandic gangsters holding them up in the Stockholm archipelago. Breaking the fourth wall, one character also proactively discusses the norms of the horror genre in order to ascertain what is likely to happen next. Chuckle-worthy stuff.
All in all, this is a book that will appeal to some and not to others. Genre fiction is not everybody’s cup of tea, even when it is so skilfully written. More pertinently, these short stories may simply be too frightening – or perhaps unnerving – for some readers. Others, however, will find a book that is easy to dip into, offering a masterly depiction of Sweden today – with a few supernatural deviations.