Wow! I'm not quite sure how to sum that book up, but it's pretty amazing. Where as Let The Right One In was a very intimate and personal story - though perhaps less so in the book than the film - Handling The Undead takes a number of very strange phenomenom and subjects the whole of Stockholm to it. A heat wave, malfunctioning electronics, spontaneous telepathic broadcasts between people and, yes, the dead coming back to life, we see the effects these events have on a handful of people, specifically those people who are already mourning the dead, that are forced to re-evaluate things when their loved ones return. Not all of these effects are explained by the end (although I understand there's a novella length epilogue still waiting to be translated into English).
Much like Let The Right One In wasn't so much a vampire story as it was a boy confronting bullies and finding a true friend he can share an almost unconditional love with (who, okay, just so happens to be a vampire), 'Handling the Undead' is not really a zombie story, though it will appear to many as such. It cuts straight to the relationships between people, particularly family, seeing where the ties are strongest and where they fray. Ultimately it's sentimental without being mawkish, the characters are beautifully rendered and believable and the 'reliving' are simultaneously alien and human. It's also punctuated by a timeline of events as they unfold, of newspaper clippings and transcripts of interviews that make for an added dose of 'reality' that serves to remind you that these characters do not live in a vacuum, although I'd have perhaps liked to have seen a little more of what the world made of events in Stockholm. Perhaps it was beyond the scope of the book though, as the stories it does concern itself with are really engaging, and it would have been a shame to see them fighting for space with a 'bigger picture'.
There are three main families around which the book revolves:
- Gustav Mahler, the old journalist who gets the scoop of the dead coming back to life, his daughter Anna, and her young son Elias, nearly two months dead;
- Flora, teen goth and Marilyn Manson fan, and her grandmother Elvy, who are visited by Elvy's recently deceased husband Tore, who was still be prepared for burial; and
- David Zetterberg, a stand up comedian, his wife Eva, who writes and illustrates children's books, and their son Magnus.
It is David Zetterberg and his son who take centre-stage for most of the book, his being the story that starts off the first chapter (after a short prologue). Shortly into the book Eva Zetterberg is tragically killed, but it is soon after that the dead begin to come back. As the reliving who was the shortest time dead befor coming back Eva remains the most coherant of the dead, although it takes her some considerable time to be able to relearn to put thoughts into words and try to relate exactly what she experiences. The three families' stories briefly entwine - Gustav is the journalist assigned to get an exclusive with David Zutterberg, although he ends up concentrating on the welfare of his grandson, and Flora is a fan of Eva Zetterberg's children's books and - being particularly sensitive - is able to eavesdrop on the thoughts of Eva's family when they cross paths.
The book ends with a handful of unanswered questions, with hostility to the dead only beginning to become apparent in the final chapters. I can't really say to what end the reliving resemble classic horror movie zombies as their motivations and nature are one of the key points addressed through out the story by the living protagonists, but it's fair to say that the story, like Let The Right One In, ends with a positive note. That's not to say it ends well for everyone, nor that the stranger events see any sort of of final conclusion (I suspect the related novella will fill in a lot of the gaps) but for the most part the three seperate families are able to find some sort of closure, or resignation. David Zutterberg's story, in particular, ends well, though it's fair to say that the three stories are all linked, that Flora's tale helps David's to reach a conclusion, and that his in turn is able to help Anna help her son.
Another really beautiful book by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I think I may have enjoyed reading it more than I enjoyed reading Let The Right One In, though that is largely because I read that book after seeing the film, and had lots of preconceptions. This book is very much a blank slate, and so I hungrily devoured it, page by page, with no idea where it would take me.
I'm very happy with where it took me. A stunning book, and I feel pretty wired having got through it. It's funny, I can go to sleep now thinking relatively happy thoughts, which is perhaps weird for a horror novel.
But then, in may ways, it's not a horror novel at all.