|LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES
John Ajvide Lindqvist (johnajvide.com)
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
It’s difficult to believe that it has been a mere five years since John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, was first published in English by Quercus. It’s a ten-year-old book that has taken the world by storm, spawning not one, but two excellent film versions, and launching the career of a writer who is the epitome of the modern horror genre. His latest English release, again from the excellent Quercus, is the collection of short stories, Let The Old Dreams Die, an amalgamation of his 2006 collection, Paper Walls, and the 2011 short story that gives the collection its new title.
The art of the short story is alive and well within the horror genre, probably more so than any other literary niche. It is the perfect vehicle for short, sharp shocks and lingering creeps. It is a form that most of the genre’s big names try out at some point – Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, for example, each has a handful of collections to his name, while Joe Hill’s first published book was his excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts. It is no surprise, then, that John Ajvide Lindqvist should have enough short stories under his belt to warrant a collection.
Most of the eleven stories in Let The Old Dreams Die share the common theme of love. It’s a slightly unexpected theme for a collection of horror stories, but this is where Lindqvist excels: these, for the most part, are not stories of the supernatural; they are stories of every day people getting on with their lives, and the horrors visited upon them, or that they visit upon themselves in the name of love, friendship, a need to belong. Here, we have the customs officer who feels like an outsider: she can sense when people are hiding things, and has made a name for herself throughout Sweden. But she feels alone, unable to form normal attachments to the people around her. Until the day she meets a man that she is convinced is hiding something, a man who makes her feel somehow whole. Here, the man who almost drowned, and who now believes he knows the secret to eternal life, an eternal life with the only woman he loves. But the pursuit of this goal breaks something within him, something between them. And here, the bored housewife who breaks into other peoples’ houses in order to discover who they are; she finds more than she bargains for in one house, the body of a man who has been stabbed to death. He becomes her little secret, a listening ear, a comforting absence; until she discovers that the feelings are not mutual.
As with any collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The very short “To hold you while the music plays” is probably the weakest of the bunch (it’s the one story that none of Lindqvist’s beta-readers liked, according to his afterword), but it’s almost impossible to pick the strongest. Each has a different effect on the reader, some outright frightening (“Village on the hill”), others deeply unsettling (“Substitute”) and yet others designed to leave the reader with a sense of disgust (“Equinox”). But they all share a sense of realism that is down to Lindqvist’s attention to detail: little tics that the characters have, a dislike of body hair, or of watching someone else chewing their food; and details of places that are consistent across the stories, making the firm point that these are real places, populated by everyday people to whom something extraordinary is happening. There is a passage in “Substitute” that perfectly sums up the sense of general weirdness that the stories evoke:
There were no photographs on the walls, just pictures of American Indians and wolves at sunset, that kind of thing. The contents of the bookcase looked as if they had come straight from a Salvation Army shop. The Family Moskat by Singer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown…the books that are always there. Something in the background of an interior design suggestion from Ikea. Nothing was in alphabetical order, and the impression was reinforced when I found another copy of The Family Moskat on a shelf lower down.
For many of Lindqvist’s long-time readers, there are two main reasons for picking up a copy of Let The Old Dreams Die. The first is the longest story in the book; at just over 100 pages in length, “The final processing” is more novella than short story, and is a direct sequel to Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead. Using several of the main characters from the novel – Elvy, Flora, Hagar – the story tells of experiments being carried out on the “reliving”, and of Flora’s attempt to help them – her grandfather included – to die a graceful and peaceful death. The story itself provides a wonderful conclusion to the novel, and allows the reader to visit with some of the more entertaining characters once more.
Most exciting of all, though, is the book’s title story. “Let the old dreams die” (incidentally, the next line from the same Morrissey song that provided the title of Lindqvist’s debut novel) gives the reader a brief glimpse of what happened to Oskar and Eli when the book finished. Told by the ticket seller at Blackeberg subway station, it is the story of the love between his two friends: one a police detective assigned to the massacre at the swimming pool, and the disappearance of young Oskar Eriksson; the other a train ticket collector, a man we see briefly at the end of Let The Right One In, and quite possibly the last man to see Oskar and Eli before they disappeared. It’s an excellent story in its own right, a story of friendship, love and obsession, but it has the added benefit of providing closure for the novel, correcting an omission that Lindqvist was unaware of until the novel was already out in the wild.
Lindqvist’s influences are many and wide-ranging. There is a touch of Stephen King here (a man he has been compared favourably to on many occasions), a dash of Michel Faber and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a smidgen of the dark humour of Monty Python. What is most surprising about this collection is that, with the exception of the title story, it was written between 2002 and 2005. The only story that post-dates Handling the Undead is “The final processing” and they were all written before he set pen to paper on his third novel, Harbour. They show a writer of considerable talent, a man who knows how to manipulate the reader to gain maximum effect. His stories are the perfect mix of unsettling horror and black humour and, like any good horror story, their aim is simple: to make the reader feel unsure of their own familiar surroundings so that the light stays on to ward off whatever horrors are lurking nearby. His writing is beautiful, thankfully preserved in Marlaine Delargy’s brilliant translation.
Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.
|A COLD SEASON
Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
[Also published as a signed limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing (www.pspublishing.co.uk)]
Following the death of her husband in Afghanistan, Cass decides to start anew. Packing up her son, Ben, she heads for the small village of Darnshaw, nestled in the Yorkshire Moors, where she has rented an apartment in the recently-refurbished mill. As they settle in, the snows start to fall and Cass, now trapped, discovers she may not be as welcome as she had hoped; there is something not quite right with this community. As Ben grows more distant and becomes abusive, she discovers that normality exists in the form of Mr Remick, the stand-in headmaster at Ben’s school, a man for whose charms she quickly falls. Isolated and alienated, Cass quickly realises that the move to Darnshaw may not have been the best idea, but with the weather closing in, the roads impassable and the phone lines down, there isn’t much she can do.
How do you measure the success of a good horror novel? For me, it’s not in nightmares, or in hours of lost sleep, but in whether I need to turn on all the lights to walk around the house at night. I like my horror to be subtle, creepy and insinuating, from the school of so-called “quiet horror”. A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood’s first novel, is most definitely “quiet”. As we arrive in Darnshaw with Cass and Ben, there is an immediate sense of wrongness, nothing that we can put a finger on, but something slightly odd all the same. Littlewood builds on this feeling and, as the snow falls and the chances of leaving the village rapidly evaporate, there is a sense of claustrophobia that, when coupled with little details – the downstairs apartment with no windows, for example, and the dolls lying in the dust of that apartment’s floor; the build-up of newspapers under the door of the supposedly empty apartment across the corridor from her own – leave the reader feeling uncomfortable and on edge.
In Cass, Littlewood has created the perfect heroine: a woman with a troubled past trying to do the best for her son in extenuating circumstances. Most of the women in the village seem to take an instant dislike to her, seemingly jealous of her fast friendship with Mr Remick. Cryptic messages from the elderly Bert, and the increasingly odd behaviour of her son are early indications for the reader that all is not well in the village of Darnshaw, while Cass continues to convince herself that nothing is amiss and that her son’s odd behaviour is down to a combination of the loss of his father, and the bad crowd into which he seems to have fallen.
It is easy to see Littlewood’s influences as the novel progresses: there is a Stepford Wives vibe here in the attitudes of the local women towards Cass, and something of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos in the behaviour of the village children. There are also more-obvious homages to at least two other classics of horror fiction, but the mere mention of their titles would constitute massive spoilers. A Cold Season is as beautifully-constructed as any of them, and is a wonderful addition to a fine tradition of horror writing. The old-fashioned feel is helped along by the lack of mobile phones – surely the bane of every horror and thriller writer producing fiction set in the modern world; the remote location and the bad weather conspire to ensure that there is no mobile phone signal, and we suddenly find ourselves in a different time, playing by different rules. It’s also worth pointing out that what Stephen King’s IT did for clowns, and countless books and films over the years have done for porcelain dolls, A Cold Season does for snowmen in a scene that, taken by itself, is worth the price of admission.
Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel, Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.
Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.
A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.
Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.
It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.
You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.
The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.
Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.
|THE CLUMSY GHOST AND OTHER SPOOKY TALES
Alastair Jessiman, Anna Britten, David Blake, Roy McMillan, Edward Ferrie, Margaret Ferrie, David Angus
Read by Sean Barrett, Harry Somerville, Anne-Marie Piazza, Roy McMillan, Thomas Eyre
Naxos Audiobooks (www.naxosaudiobooks.com)
(Available as a CD audiobook or digital download)
I have, for a long time, been a fan of horror, cutting my teeth back in the ‘80s on anthologies edited together especially for younger readers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Christopher Pike. From there, I graduated to the novels of Stephen King and the rest, as they say, is history. I still have a fondness for those old novels and anthologies and like to revisit them when I have the chance. I was offered a copy of Naxos Audiobooks’ The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales for review and jumped at the offer, seeing a chance to relive those parts of my childhood that cemented in place my love for reading.
The Clumsy Ghost is a collection of seven specially-commissioned short spooky tales written specifically for audio presentation, and to appeal to an audience of 8-13 year-olds. According to publisher Nicholas Soames, the plan was to recreate a genre of ghost stories that appealed to the whole family, in the vein of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
What they have produced is something of a mixed bag; as with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. Some of the entries will appeal specifically to the younger members of the family, while others are aimed at the higher end of the 8-13 year-old range, and one or two appealing to the whole family group – mum and dad included. The title story is a comedic tale about a ghost who decides to haunt a local mansion whose owners have fallen upon hard times. The ghost, a clumsy man in life, discovers that he is no less clumsy in death, and ends up causing trouble for the family, rather than helping them. “Unable to Connect” puts a very modern spin on an old-fashioned tale. A teenage girl hears her mobile phone ringing, even though she has left it at home, and discovers shortly afterwards that her mother has died at around the same time.
The strongest stories in the collection are “The Weeping Tree” and “The Book of Imhotep”. Margaret Ferrie’s “The Weeping Tree” is good old-fashioned horror story, with one scene in particular that will send a shiver up the spine of even the most hardened reader of horror. “The Book of Imhotep” takes us back to Egypt and a battle of wits between a cocky young prince and a long-dead sorcerer.
Overall, the stories are good, if not always excellent. With some, it is clear that they have been written specifically for audio presentation, while others have been written with a more traditional slant, and would not be out of place between the covers of a physical book. These stories provide chills aplenty, but are not designed to give nightmares, and in that they should succeed admirably (admittedly, I’m 36 years old, so the intended audience may see things slightly differently).
The two-disc set provides around two and a half hours of family entertainment the old-fashioned way, with nary a television set in sight. The readers are consistently wonderful – Sean Barrett is the stand-out here – and all well-suited to the stories they read. Naxos are best-known for their wonderful recordings of some of the finest classical music out there, and they have managed to incorporate some of this into the production, so expect to hear music from Debussy, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst others. The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales should be essential Hallowe’en or Christmas listening for families who like to spend time reading together, and should provide children with an introduction to the much wider world of horror fiction.
Kim Newman (www.johnnyalucard.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Is there a more interesting and populated place and time in recent history than London in the twilight years of the nineteenth century? Peopled by a huge cast of people real and fictional, it is a location and period ripe with opportunity and ideas for any artist willing to do a little research. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman’s cult 1992 horror/romance/alternate history novel takes advantage of this and gives us a view on what London might have been like in 1888 had Dracula not only survived the events of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, but married Queen Victoria and taken the title of Prince Consort. Published by Titan Books, this cult classic has once again been made available to a wide audience.
The book diverges from Stoker’s novel at the point where Dracula is interrupted in his attempt to “turn” Mina Harker; instead of fleeing, he kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, scattering the rest of the group and finishing his business with Mina. From there, his rise to power is unstoppable, culminating in his marriage to the queen, and England’s move towards being the foremost vampire nation. As the novel opens, it is 1888, and Jack the Ripper has claimed his third victim. In this alternate universe, the Ripper is exclusively a killer of vampire prostitutes, which has the effect of forcing ever deeper the wedge between vampire and warm (humans). This is a very different London to the one we know: vampires occupy almost every position of power and a full-blown dictatorship is in effect. Dissenters and threats to the crown have been shipped off to concentration camps in the middle of the English countryside, where they will ultimately serve as cattle for the ever-growing vampire population.
Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and horror shines throughout. Only a handful of the characters we meet are original to the author. As well as the remnants of Dracula’s enemies – Dr John Seward and Arthur Holmwood, now Lord Godalming – we encounter, amongst others, the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle (Mycroft Holmes (his brother Sherlock ensconced in one of the aforementioned concentration camps), Moriarty), Sax Rohmer, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens alongside the likes of Florence Stoker (her husband, Bram, sharing a compound with Sherlock Holmes), Oscar Wilde and Fred Abberline. Into this mix, Newman introduces Charles Beauregard, agent for the shady Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, a four-and-a-half century old vampire who is older even than Dracula.
Beauregard is a sort of nineteenth century John Steed, sword-cane and all: a man about town with a sinister and dangerous background and the skills to ensure his own survival at the expense of an enemy’s. Instructed by the cabal that runs the Diogenes Club (an institution that originates in the work of Conan Doyle) to investigate the Ripper murders, he meets the young-looking Genevieve and together they comb Whitechapel for clues to the identity of the murderer. All around them, the country is falling apart as growing dissent greets the ever tightening grip of the Impaler.
To use Newman’s own phrase, Anno Dracula is an ‘overpopulated period-set “romp”’, and a great deal of time can be spent – and fun had – trying to identify the origins of characters. Despite that, it’s a tightly-plotted and brilliantly-conceived novel that pays homage not only to Stoker’s Dracula, but to the vampire genre in general. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel is the fact that Dracula himself is absent for the vast majority of it, putting in a short appearance at the very end in a wonderful and wholly unexpected climax. Despite the subject matter, Newman presents us with a conceivable alternate London: the tensions between vampire and warm, between rich and poor; a city where the rule of law exists hand in hand with the ways of Vlad the Impaler and his kind; a city terrorised by an infamous murderer (the identity of whom is revealed to the reader in the first chapter) whose motives have been shaped to fit this new world order.
If, like me, you missed Anno Dracula the first time around, then this is the perfect opportunity to read one of the finest modern vampire novels ever written, up there with what I consider to the be the “big three”: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Robert McCammon’s They Thirst and George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. Once done, you can take comfort in the fact that Titan will be publishing several other books in the series, so you won’t have to wait too long for your next fix.
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. There is an abundance of zombie fiction on the go these days, and it’s one of the sub-genres of horror where people aren’t afraid to experiment and play with the tropes, which keeps it somewhat fresher than you might expect. So we find ourselves dealing with the rotting recent-dead of Romero’s Dead movies, as well as the virus-infected zombies of the 28 <Arbitrary Time Period> Later films, and those affected by unidentified radio waves, as in Stephen King’s Cell. To my mind, though, there has always been a bit of a gap in the post-apocalypse sub-genre, particularly when zombies are involved, and it always occurs to me in the form of a question when I’m reading such a book: the author focuses on a set of survivors who have lived through whatever disaster forms the setup for the story, and how they cope in the post-apocalyptic world, but what about those people physically removed from civilisation at that point in time? I’m usually thinking along the lines of the handful of men and women who are currently sitting on the International Space Station, but you get the idea.
Adam Baker’s first novel, Outpost, finally fills this gap. As the novel opens we find ourselves in the Arctic oil fields, bedded down on Kasker Rampart, an oil refinery manned by a skeleton crew of fifteen, awaiting their imminent return to society before the refinery is shut down, or relocated. Weeks before the ship is due to arrive to evacuate them back to Britain, they begin to see worrying news reports on the 24-hour news stations – people are turning violent, killing those around them; a trend that seems to be spreading around the globe. As, one by one, the channels begin to go off-air, leaving the crew with the uneasy suspicion that there might be no home to return to, they begin to make plans, driven by the fast approaching winter (and the months of endless night that come with it) and a rapidly dwindling store of supplies.
The bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Jane Blanc, a priest assigned to run Rampart’s chapel, a thankless job that sees her mainly ostracised from the rest of the crew and on the verge of suicide before things start to go wrong in the outside world. Jane’s development from these humble beginnings to the leader of the ragged crew is well-documented and very believable. We follow her as factions form within the crew, and alliances are made, broken, remade. For the first half, this is a zombie novel at one remove: there are no zombies here, but they are out there somewhere, of no danger to our characters. It’s a story of survival against all odds and the characters – and their development over the course of an unknown time period – are brilliantly realised.
Halfway through, the game changes, and infection intervenes, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges for the crew of Rampart. Yes, this is a virus-induced zombification, and it is never made clear how the infection started or where, exactly, it came from. Sure, there are hints, but it’s secondary to the main story here, and the direction Baker takes us means that we never need – nor want – to find out, because we’re too busy following what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the latter half of the novel is closer to the traditional zombie formula, but by no means a rehash of anything that has gone before.
The novel is told in clipped, matter-of-fact tones and short, snappy sentences of the type you’d expect to find in hard-boiled detective fiction. Along with numerous jump-cuts, this serves the plot well: it builds tension, and it helps to remove a sense of time – we have no idea if what’s happening is happening over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. We can guess at various points, but it’s next to impossible to pin anything down for sure. Baker has no such qualms with sense of place: you’re fully aware for the duration of exactly where you are. This is the desolate wastes of the Arctic and it’s cold! That’s not a fact you’ll forget easily as you read.
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.