Dear Mr. Ajvide Lindqvist,
I find myself wanting to see your arm, to verify if there is an ‘X’ scarring it, carved by a monster of a policeman. Seeing this scar, I think, might convince me of the existence of horrors beyond this world.
In this year of firsts, I was lucky enough recently to write for the Newtown Review of Books on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s I Always Find You, a compelling genre-bending memoir-horror-bildungsroman.
Lindqvist became known in the English-speaking world as the author of Let the Right One In, however my favourite Lindqvist book is unquestionably Handling the Undead. Zombies are well-established figures in cultural works, but Lindqvist was one of the first to turn the trope on its head. The undead were no longer monsters, we were.
I have a great admiration for horror writers, and have loved the genre since time immemorial. At the age of 11 or 12 I read Stephen King’s collection Skeleton Crew – a grossly unsuitable book for a kid – and one of my favourite films was a bootlegged version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. These creators (I realise I’ve only named men) know the art of finding our deepest, most immutable fears.
The majority of humans fear pain, rejection, violence and humiliation. Horror cuts to the quick of these experiences and yet is an accessible catharsis – better to release feeling against toothy or reanimated beasts than the very real and often insurmountable threats looming in our daily lives.
Some of the most effective horror stories are those of enclosure. Despite my love/hate relationship with King, there’s no denying that tales like The Mist and The Shining engage with something darkly pivotal to the human experience. When the crucible spills over and the world expands is where King misses the mark for me. Notably, Lindqvist’s I Am Behind You, hinges on a deceptively simple premise and makes a threat out of infinity and empty space. Four families holidaying in a caravan park wake to find the world has changed. Essentially, they are the only ones living in it. The sky is blue but sunless. In every direction, grass stretches into vast, vacant horizons. This is the kind of existential dread which kept me awake during primary school.
Good horror makes us question reality – makes us wonder what really happened in the laundry room of the dodgy Stockholm flat in I Always Find You. Did young Lindqvist really remember moments from his childhood, where a small boy hid in his treehouse, a boy with fingers so mangled they stuck out in different directions?
It’s the same effect as watching a horror film in the dark. When the lights come back on you wonder… are the dark shapes in the next room really the same as they were before? Surely, that object shifted, that shadow changed form. This sense of the uncanny, the tension between belief and disbelief is a major appeal of horror, beyond the thrilling catharsis of fright. As Sigmund Freud wrote in 1919, the uncanny:
Undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror…
It is this sense of the uncanny that spans both horror and fairy tale. The re-animation of the dead is present in tales like Snow White, as well as in The Day of the Dead. Who’s to say that narratives like I Always Find You won’t one day be fables everyone knows?