Natur & Kultur, 2017.
Reviewed by Annie Prime in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
Danger lurks in a small town in Gästrikland. Young girls have gone missing, and none found alive. An anti-hero journalist is on the case. The prose and bleak rural setting are so blood-curdlingly vivid that you dread to turn each page. You could be forgiven for thinking I am describing a typical grisly detective story, but Jorden vaknar is in fact a full-blown supernatural fantasy horror with all the dark delights of a fairy tale. The old school of fairy tales, that is – the ones that make even adults afraid to walk through the woods alone.
This is the second part of a trilogy that began in 2015 with Vattnet drar (The Lure of the Water). The first book saw the revival of a dormant ancient evil. Demons of nature lurk in the water and woods, and manifest as skinless humanoid monsters. They are the wanderers, and they have returned to drag the world into darkness.
But as long as there have been wanderers, there have also been watchers. Enter Gunhild, a crazy old cat lady living alone in the woods, performing gruesome rituals with feline sacrifice and iron and blood to push this ancient evil back into the murky depths.
Two hapless youngsters have become embroiled in Gunhild’s destiny: Krister, her estranged psychic grandson; and Beata, best friend of Celia, who fell victim to the wanderers. In the previous book they worked together to keep the wanderers at bay, but the forces of evil have not been destroyed.
Now Beata is haunted by visions of Celia – could she really still be alive?
After Beata receives a mysterious phone call from Celia, the demon-slaying trio go to her apartment to find her alive, but bedevilled. A living swamp of murky roots and bloody tentacles has taken over her home and devoured her parents.
Meanwhile, Viktor is a troubled young man with a secret. The magical stone that once filled him with a delicious primal power has left him cold. When the magic finally returns to him, it comes in a deluge and washes away the last traces of his humanity. He becomes one with the wanderers and suffused with dark power that enables him to absorb human life force and amass a retinue of bewitched captives.
Journalist Jäder has been reading an old diary in which the young protagonist describes the magical workings and consequent lynching of her witch grandmother. Could there be a link between this witch hunt and the evil arising today? He follows an anonymous tip-off that Viktor is the murderer behind the disappearances in town, but before he can investigate, he becomes absorbed into Viktor’s zombie army and swept along into the woods for a climactic stand-off between wanderers and watchers.
Sound too far-fetched? You might be surprised. Madeleine Bäck is a skilled writer and meticulous plotter. She has created a very believable sense of place, and supernatural elements that fit so well into the canon of fantasy horror that it feels like a nightmare from our collective unconscious.
As with the first book, Bäck focuses on building and sustaining suspense, interweaving several plot lines so that practically every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and indulging the reader in flashes of vivid horror that always leave you wanting more.
However, where Vattnet drar’s pacing pulled me along on a sufficiently taut string throughout, the tension slackens in this second instalment. The first book raised a high bar for bone-chilling shock value, and though the second book has provided some pleasing gore, my bloodlust is not satisfied.
The story takes a little too long to heat up, and the chop-and-change narrative style left me a little confused, and gave me insufficient time to really care about all the characters as individuals.
Bäck is a talented writer and there is a lot to enjoy about this fantasy noir. But I get the feeling that she is saving all the best bits for the third act.