Book review: Lindqvist’s ‘Harbor’ establishes him as Sweden’s Stephen King

October 4, 2011

The Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s best-known novel, “Let the Right One In,” was an elegant and original take on vampires, and his second book, “Handling the Undead,” similarly reinvigorated zombies. But Lindqvist’s new work, “Harbor,” takes on an even more lethal human nemesis: the sea. Set on Domaro, a fictional island in the Swedish archipelago, “Harbor” weaves a loose tapestry from folklore, maritime history and good old-fashioned horror.  

Anders is a Domaro native descended from island fishermen who now lives in Stockholm with his wife, Cecilia. On a February vacation to Domaro with Maja, their 6-year-old daughter, they visit a lighthouse, crossing ice thick enough to support cars driving from the mainland. Inside the lighthouse tower, Maja stares at the monochromatic world outside:

“ ‘Daddy, what’s that?’

“Anders screwed his eyes up against the brightness and looked out over the ice. He couldn’t see anything apart from the white covering.”

After their picnic lunch, Maja runs outside “to look at that  thing I said I could see.” Within minutes, she has disappeared.

Two years pass. Anders and Cecilia split up, and he returns to the ramshackle family home on Domaro, where he habitually drinks until he passes out. His closest neighbors are his grandmother and her partner of 40 years, Simon, the most memorable character in a book that has many. Simon is a professional magician and escape artist in the Houdini mode who possesses a desiccated, insectlike creature called Spiritus, which he keeps in a matchbox. The creature is periodically revived by infusions of saliva, but its true nature is only gradually revealed, along with the underlying mystery that for centuries has caused the deaths or disappearance of island residents.

Lindqvist’s narrative shuttles back and forth in time, and much of the backstory is more riveting than the contemporary sections, which rely heavily on the enervated, alcoholic Anders. Like Stephen King, Lindqvist makes deft use of contemporary pop culture, though some of the supernatural elements don’t quite jell. There’s a subplot that involves a pair of unhappy local rustics who become two of the odder revenants in recent memory, and the recurring figure of a cartoon bear beloved by Swedish children doesn’t have the same emotional resonance for American readers.

Still, like King, Lindqvist is a master at evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small, self-contained community whose denizens are as cursed by their own history as by the uncanny, terrifying events of the present.  

Hand’s thriller “Available Dark” will be published early next year.

harbor

By John Ajvide Lindqvist

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

Thomas Dunne. 500 pp. $25.99

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