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Let the Right One In

September 13, 2009

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
published by St. Martin’s Griffin October 28, 2008

In a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, 12-year-old Oskar is cruelly bullied by some of his schoolmates. Lacking the strength to stand up to his tormenters, he fantasizes about murdering them. He even compiles a scrapbook of news clippings about homicides. As he gleefully collects these gruesome snippets, he keeps this hobby a secret from his affectionate but somewhat fragile single mom.

Are you creeped out yet? Well, it gets better. Oskar meets Eli, a mysterious girl who lives with her “father” in a neighboring apartment. They form an intense bond of friendship and affection, and Eli inspires Oskar to build up his physical strength and face the bullies. Eventually, he learns that Eli is a vampire, crystallized in a child’s body since medieval times. Her “father,” Hakan, is a pedophile with whom she cohabitates. They have an eerie symbiotic relationship. In return for her chaste companionship, which he hopes will develop into something else, Hakan becomes a murderer to help Eli procure human blood.

Oskar and Eli are surrounded by a wide array of supporting characters. These include a small gang of adolescents — disconnected from their families and community — who hang out at their apartment building and a loose-knit group of alcoholics who meet at a local bar. This novel is as much social commentary as it is paranormal horror. It gives readers a glimpse of the anomie in a suburban community and of the alienation many people feel, even when surrounded by neighbors and companions.

If you like vampires in their raw form, not morally correct ones who avoid devouring human blood and not vampires who shimmer in the sunlight — and if you have a strong stomach for violence and disturbing sexual content — this novel might be for you.

Despite my own squeamishness, I enjoyed this book. The author has a knack for creating intriguing, three-dimensional characters who, while they may seem wholly unlikeable at first, end up drawing you in and inspiring interest, sympathy, admiration, or at least pity. And while the raw brutality might make you cringe, or even turn your stomach, you can’t look away. He also knows how to build tension and suspense. In these respects, he reminds me of Stephen King at his best.

This writer also has a gift for sensory detail. I could feel the bitter Swedish winter and the crunch of snow under my feet, and I could see the imagery, which was sometimes bloody and brutal. I could also feel what it was like to gradually become a vampire.

So while I didn’t fall in love with this book, it did hold my attention, and the characters, events, and imagery will probably stick with me for a while. I recommend this for horror lovers who want a slightly different twist on vampire folklore.

Don’t miss Sarah’s review of the movie adaptation.


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