John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let the Right One In (or Let Me In in America) is a grim masterpiece of urban fantasy every bit as interesting for its postmodern socialist subtext as it is for a stark romance of relational seduction to evil. If you have a strong stomach, this is a bittersweet change from the bodice-ripping sensuality of soft-core chick porn that plagues the genre today.
Lindqvist takes a pinch of Stephen King style nostalgia for a bygone era (1982 this time instead of the small town 1960’s of King’s own childhood) and strips out the flickers of gilded hindsight that touch King’s work and sets a landscape as cold and grey as a Swedish winter.
Set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, the story depends on the quiet desperation of life in a world without spirituality or hope. This is a world the government planned with mechanical efficiency, constructed with impersonal bureaucracy, and abandoned to personal neglect as people slotted into the system try and fail to find hope or lasting meaning in life. This is a world where the government stepped into the place of God, and like Frankenstein, failed completely to act out the role.
You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.
That tells you something about the modernity of the place, its rationality. It tells you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and of terror.
It explains in part how unprepared they were.
-Lindqvist, chapter 1: “The Location”
Lindqvist’s prose is tight, precise, and honest. It has the same sharp angles and bleak walls of the modern apartment blocks the terror inhabits. He fills the barren landscape with barren lives. The circle of aging alcoholics seeking someone’s company to grow old and die with even as those relationships falter and fall and the bottle alone remains. The middle-aged parents and singles are inevitably divorced, estranged, or defective. The children bully, torment, steal, and hate. The trend in recent European contemporary horror to shine a light on the problems of pedophilia are highlighted in the earliest portions of the book.
Lindqvist’s protagonist, 12-year-old Oskar, walks through this minefield just coming of age enough to see that there is no sunrise on his lonely, bullied horizon. The government institutions are indifferent or completely ineffective to protect him from bullying. They have no answers to give his life any meaning or hope. Petty theft isn’t enough to give him a feeling of control to deal with his victimization.
And then the child-like vampire moves in next door, and Oskar faces a growing seduction between the nihilism of socialist life, or a personal connection, no matter how terrible, that is at the very least: honest. Eli, the child vampire is a fascinating metaphor for Europeans living in democratic socialism. Like them, Eli was failed by the overlords of the past. They, like Eli, live disillusioned with no hope of a life out of dependency. Eli cannot grow up and achieve self-sufficiency.
There is no room in the democratic socialist Sweden for life independent of the government apart from a life of crime. There is no comfort for the tormented, no hope of healing for the tormentors, and with neither meaning or belief in a future, all that remains for his handful of characters is to snatch some feeling of connection and personal power in the moment, for the moment is the only relevant issue. The future and the past blend into the snow-covered background.
Lindqvist’s plotting is tight. He spoons out relevant backstory in precise doses that neither alleviate the tension nor answer too much, too soon. The existential doom that hovers over his cast only grows more painful as even the most terrible character goes through sympathetic plot points. A monstrous man is loyal and conflicted over his own evil. The weak have moments of courage and heroism before their heroic acts are ground to meaningless oblivion by a system that has no place for individuals or heroes.
As Oskar and Eli come to know one another, and the adults scramble to deal with an evil that does not fit in their rational, modern worldview, the true horror of Lindqvist’s work crawls up the spine and takes hold. In this world without meaning, the embrace of the dead is preferable to no hope at all.