|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.