John Ajvide Lindqvist, unusual name, you might not recall it. Once upon a time he wrote an incredible novel called Let The Right One In, which was later adapted into critically acclaimed movie. Then he wrote Handling the Dead which was eagerly received… only to fall a little flat. The Harbour once more marks his return to his first second third love, the horror novel. Where fans will be pleased to know he still likes dark, conflicted characters, the occasional stomach churning descent into body horror and that he’s still happily obsessed with The Smiths.
The Smiths? You know, the guys who wrote the Charmed theme tune.
One fine, Swedish day on the island of Domaro, Anders sets off to explore the local lighthouse with his daughter Maja and wife Cecilia. Except somehow Maja disappears in the middle of an utterly featureless ice-field. Two years later Anders returns to the island, his life in tatters, at the end of his rope, but… is someone calling to him? It’s the classic horror setup: isolated location, cantankerous villagers and DARK SECRETS. Think the Isle of White, but smaller and packed with more herring. Lots more herring.
This is a good solid base for a ripping yarn: a massive unanswered question and a valuable object that makes the dogged pursuit of its answer utterly plausible. Along the way we pick up themes and subplots in the shape of ghosts, facades, possession and memory. There’s some really interesting stuff going on here, especially the way he plays around with the concept of possession and the transformation of innocent corporate mascots into avatars of terror.
The problem is that there’s so much going on, the narrative gradually begins to buckle under its own weight. Tangents, view shifts and time skips begin to split away and distract from the two important central questions and the novel simply isn’t large enough to support this slackening of focus. Anders’ past, in particularly the nature of two antagonists from it, doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, even though Lindqvist makes some of his most lucid and memorable observations while visiting it. Rather, these elements have to be dropped like hot potatoes and swept under the rug. It’s a world apart from Let the Right One In, which focused very closely on the lives of its two young anti-heroes, even when exploring the lives of peripheral characters, leaving you on tenterhooks as the pair danced about their secrets, teetering on the knife-edge of love and disaster.
On the other hand, the one area where Linqdvist once more proves himself a true master is in capturing the fears and foibles of ‘everyday’ people. Some of his musings on the reality of child friendships, the concept of being an outsider and the nature of guilt are quite illuminating, taking both the beauty and filth of human relationships and thrusting them cruelly up into the cold naked light of day. In particular, there’s a darkness in the protagonist that’s so rich and full it’s almost like luxuriating in a bath of warm Bordeaux. The moment where his illusions are stripped away is resolutely beautiful in a most supremely ugly way; like having a mirror reflect your soul and finding it cracked and wretched, but carrying on anyway because what you want, you want so desperately that nothing else matters – you’d cut your own hands off if you were allowed to hold it for just one second. It’s also punctuated by a scene of such gorge-raising foulness that it doesn’t just expose the reader to the abject, but swaddles them in it, like a fine downy duvet. Magical.
This might almost have been enough to power through, but the biggest problem is that he can’t tie it all together. The climax of the novel should have been a nightmarishly tense spectacle, where the TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES hinted at throughout should have come crashing down; in fact it’s almost as if nothing occurs, everyone essentially gets a free pass.
Threads are left unresolved, questions unanswered, characters and plot devices that should have been important prove to be incidental, almost irrelevant… it’s a cop-out and a wash out.
Oh well, let’s all listen to the Smiths in all their glory.