Translated by Susan Beard
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
In the summer of 1978 young Marcus Brodin disappears from the cabin he is sharing with his mother in the remote woods of central Sweden. His mother claims he was taken by a giant, but her reliance on prescription drugs makes her an unreliable witness. A decade later, wildlife photographer Gunnar Myrén takes a photograph of a bear from his small aircraft; there is a small creature riding on the bear’s back. Gunnar is convinced that this creature is a troll. In 2004 Gunnar’s granddaughter Susso runs a website dedicated to proving the existence of so-called mythical creatures. When she is contacted by an old woman who claims that a tiny man has been watching her house, Susso finds herself coming face-to-face with irrevocable evidence that her grandfather was right, that trolls exist in the Swedish hinterlands. Now she must use her knowledge to find young Mattias Mickelsson before he suffers the same fate that Marcus Brodin suffered over twenty-five years earlier.
Trolls are a part of the global consciousness, mythical creatures that we’ve all heard of, and whose physical aspect, whether we know it or not, has been shaped by the work of the likes of Rolf Lidberg and John Bauer (right). Tapping into a wealth of Swedish folklore, Stefan Spjut has built a fascinating – if frightening – story around a credible and engaging premise. The strength of Stallo lies in the characters with which the novel is populated, from Susso and her mother, to Seved and Börje who act as keepers for the giant creatures of the novel’s title: stallo are mythical shape-shifting creatures from the far northern depths of Sweden. From the outset, we’re invested in the lives of these people, and it is as much our need to know who they are and what will become of them that propels us through the story as it is the relatively straightforward plot itself.
In the tradition of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In, of which Stallo is very reminiscent – even beyond the Swedish setting, there is something about the novel’s language and pace that will remind readers of that earlier novel – this is horror of the most quiet variety. There is little in the way of violence, and with the exception of one or two key scenes, much of the tension and sense of horror is built through suggestion as Spjut slowly reveals what these creatures are and what they want.
Spjut has pulled a very clever move in not making the trolls the true villains of the piece, but rather their human keepers. Much of the violence is perpetrated at Lennart’s command and while the stallo are certainly a frightening prospect, they play a decidedly passive role in the proceedings. The reader comes away with a sense that, in their own way, they are good and reasonable beings who have fallen under the care of people who epitomise the darker side of the human condition.
The novel’s setting will be familiar to many readers of the recent Scandi-crime wave. Set mainly in the northern city of Kiruna (which will be familiar to readers of the novels of Åsa Larsson), the action moves across much of the country, taking in the area around Lake Vättern in the south, as well as the country’s capital, Stockholm. The central characters are constantly on the move, and this allows Spjut not only to show off some of the highlights of his beautiful country, but also how the mythology of trolls differs from one end of the country to the other.
As the wave of Scandi-crime reaches its peak, it seems that Scandi-horror might be the next big thing in the world of genre literature (I have already been asked to look at a Swedish anthology of horror stories by some of the country’s biggest names in the genre, which I hope to review here soon). Very different from the type of horror we’re used to seeing here in the UK and in the US, Stallo is most definitely in the same vein as Let The Right One In. This is literary horror, designed to make the reader stop of wonder “what if…?”, to sow the seeds of discomfort and unease that grow over time, rather than to hit the reader with a short, sharp fright that they will laugh off and forget by the end of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of creature, something that we see very rarely (the last I can remember is the 2010 Norwegian film, Trollhunter), which helps to make the story feel fresh and interesting, rather than another rehash of a tired old trope. Not that Spjut needs much help on that score: his characters are pitch perfect, his slowly unfolding plot engaging and surprising, and his use of language – ably translated into English by Susan Beard – sublime and beautiful.
Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.