How Do You Spot a Monster? (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist)

Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There have been countless vampire stories set in so many different eras and geographical locations. In order for a new book to have appeal to anyone well-versed in vampire stories, it must add something to the story. In addition, while I cut my teeth, so to speak, on the horror genre, I’ve become more sensitive to scary stories since I became a mom, and my reading time is much more difficult to come by. I can’t afford to waste time with a book that just recycles old stories or is poorly written or scares me but has no other redeeming qualities.

My friend, Ken, is an avid consumer of all things horror, even the really, really stupid stuff. He’s an excellent resource for me, culling through the tons of horror stories out there and guiding me towards the very best. So when he gave me Let the Right One In last month, I felt fairly confident it wouldn’t be a waste of time.

I’m happy to say, it wasn’t.

Although it has the requisite gore and detailed account of what happens when the “vampire rules” are broken (entering a place without being invited, for example), and it deals primarily with characters who live on human blood, I don’t find it to be primarily a vampire story.

Of course, no (good) vampire story is really just about bloodsuckers. Might as well be about leeches if that were the case. No, the appeal of vampires is the idea that the vampire represents the struggle between the “animal” (base instinct) and the “human” (moral) sides of human nature. It shows how someone who for whatever reason exists more on the former side than the latter is necessarily cast out from society. But of course, part of the appeal of the vampire for those of us not quite comfortable in the mainstream is just how they’re able to survive and thrive and even to do so with great flare and style and charisma. It’s like, sure they’re outcasts, but they’re also really, really cool.

Let the Right One In deals with two main themes, as far as I can see. On the one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story. Here’s Oskar, something of a pariah in his school, a shoplifting boy in his early teens who reads comics and eats too many Swedish candy bars with strange names. Oskar is, like everyone his age, trying to define who he is, trying to find some way that he can possibly become the kind of person he wants to be. Oskar’s peers are going through the same identity crisis, and none of them has any reliable role models on which to base themselves. All are from broken homes. All live in the lifeless suburbs of Stockholm.

Then there’s the other theme of the book, which other reviewers have mentioned: monsters. This book is filled with monsters, most of which are of a more mundane variety than vampires and the undead. And there are no characters in this book who are purely evil, at least not at the start. Everyone got to start out as the innocent children we all do. Somewhere along the line, however, things kind of got out of hand.

In each character there seems to be a line that they’ve crossed or are trying not to cross between “good” and “evil”, and the edges aren’t all that well defined. The ones who’ve crossed the line but are aware of their having crossed the line are the ones who seem the most human. Virginia, Oskar, Eli, even Håkan (the Renfield of the story who seems the least in control of his “animal” side). These are also the characters who give this story tension. In each instant, they have a choice and are aware of their choices. They keep the reader wondering on what side of the line they’ll come down this time.

Even the suburbs themselves appear to be in the midst of this struggle. We learn that the first suburban homes were single-family homes but quickly the boxy, faceless, history-less complexes sprung up.

Great quote from the beginning of the book about Blackeberg, the suburb where most of the story takes place:

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, the children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one…You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, its rationality. It tells you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and of terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

One of the characters even speculates that somehow the builders of the complexes unintentionally oriented things in such a way that the inhabitants were all predisposed to things going wrong (although of course now I can’t find that passage, so I’m wondering if I made it up).

At any rate, the ones who are unaware of the line are the ones who seem the most scary to me (and this group doesn’t include the vampires).

I love how this book blurs the lines between “good” and “evil” and “us” and “them.” It’s given me much more than just a spooky story.

And incidentally, I didn’t find the gore overdone, nor did I need to sleep with the lights on after reading it.

Score another one for good old Ken.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I gave it 4 stars rather than 5, some of the characters are pretty one-dimensional. I had trouble keeping the Tomases and Tommies and Johans and Johnnies straight.)

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