There's a Place In Hell For Oskar and His Friends

by Arthur B

Let the Right One In is the best vampire novel named after a Morrissey song ever.
There's a lot of hype around John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In at the moment, and for good reason: it's billed by its supporters as the reinvention of the vampire novel, a triumphant evisceration of the romantic sanitisation of the vampire that began with Anne Rice's sexy, vulnerable, approachable bloodsuckers and culminated with Stephenie Meyer's slightly grumpy glitter goths (actually, the original Swedish version of the book came out a year before the first volume of Twilight, but let's not get hung up on that).

This is not completely the case; at the end of the day this is still the tale of a young boy called Oskar who falls in love with Eli, the vampire next door. But whilst the individual vampires encountered in this book are almost (but not quite) all very human characters that the reader can feel sympathy for, the actual condition of vampirism is consistently portrayed as a degrading and grotesque thing, a vile curse that reduces the vampire to a bestial blight upon the community. Romantic nibbling is simply not an option, not if the vampire wants to really satisfy the craving to any real extent; the disease of vampirism demands murder, over and over again, preferably followed by desecration of the corpse, for feeding invariably results in infection, and uncontrolled infection leads only to disaster.

Creating a distinction between the infected human being and the blind murderous beast that drives them when the vampirism takes hold is, of course, a device we remember fondly from Anne Rice. In Bram Stoker and his successors vampirism and humanity are mutually exclusive conditions; Dracula, his wives, and the vampirised Lucy are transformed by death, turned into soulless monsters which feel no remorse about their fate and do not question their condition. The vampirism of Let the Right One In is a close cousin of that of Twilight or Interview With the Vampire; the hunger is intense, but the vampire is the same person they were before they got bit and can choose to control themselves. (In fact, we're told that the reason that vampires are rare is that most newly-infected vampires commit suicide rather than take a human life - which seems an awfully optimistic assessment of the ability of people to prioritise their ethics over their survival instinct, but there you go).

Lindqvist isn't the antidote to Anne Rice; instead, he's written a better entry in The Vampire Chronicles than she has ever produced. My favourite part of Interview With the Vampire was the bit where Lestat and Louis go hunting for fellow leeches in Transylvania, and are only able to find a sad, mad, lonely creature running about in the wilds. I always thought it was a shame that the rest of the series seemed to embrace Lestat's view that vampirism is totally bitchin'; Let the Right One In harks back to Louis's point of view, that vampirism is a blight and a burden that is endured by those who are too weak to exterminate themselves, and is all the more powerful for it.

(The spoilers start here, by the way.)

The major catalyst for deromanticising the vampire myth and getting it good and grimy is not actually a vampire; it is Håkan, Eli's pedolicious Renfield. Eli is technically 200 years old, but the body that Håkan lusts after is that of a prepubescent child, and it's made clear that vampirism halts mental development as well as physical aging; but Eli is all twisted and broken inside, and sees nothing wrong with exploiting Håkan's desires in order to make Håkan go and do the dirty work of acquiring blood. Eli does not actually offer Håkan sex as such - the greatest reward on offer is lying in bed together naked - but their interactions are still completely grotesque and disturbing, not least because in the earlier stages of the novel it's not clear whether Eli is a spooky devil-child or an introverted and traumatised kid with a murder habit.

Speaking of that sort of thing, Oskar isn't without his own problems. Tormented by bullies at school to the point where he pisses himself with distressing regularity. When we first encounter him he's weak, vulnerable, and might or might not be developing into a nascent serial killer; his murderous fantasies are only fantasies, but there's no denying that they go beyond schoolboy morbidity and show the signs of growing into an unheathy obsession. I got the impression that had they not encountered and opened up to each other, both Oskar and Eli would have ended up destroying themselves - Eli by losing touch with humanity altogether, Oskar by knifing one of the bullies. It is not altogether clear that they aren't doomed anyway by the end of the story, but at least they are facing the future together.

This leads in to my only real complaint about the novel: that the ending is perhaps a little incongruously upbeat, that it ends up spending the last 20 pages buying into the same vampire mystique it has spent the last 500 pages demolishing. Most of those 500 pages concern Håkan fucking up royally, and the nightmarish consequences that ensue for the unappealing Stockholm suburb Oskar lives in. But Håkan's meltdown concludes surprisingly early, leaving a conclusion in which Oskar has a last confrontation with the worst of the bullies and Eli swoops in to save the day. Eli's vampiric powers being used for a basically good purpose doesn't fit the rest of the story, in which the powers are nigh-always used for feeding, and are nigh-always depicted as being horrific, nasty, and unsettling phenomena, rather than kick-ass superpowers. Granted, one could make the argument that this shows how Eli has changed, but deep down the reader knows that Eli really hasn't changed, that Eli isn't capable of changing, that Eli will kill and kill and kill again to stay alive and, if the epilogue is anything to go by, Oskar is happy to help out (and will probably end up like Håkan in the process). This conclusion to the story also, sadly, wrecks the book's potential as a delightful tool for trolling Twilight fans; as traumatising as some of the stretches may be, a determined reader could quite happily cling to the happier aspects of Oskar and Eli's relationship without thinking the long-term consequences of their relationship through.

What's more, it has the air of a vindictive and petty gesture on the part of the author. The book is set in the same suburb that Lindqvist grew up in, in the 1980s when Lindqvist was more or less the same age as the protagonist. Fair enough; writing about what you know is useful, and Ramsey Campbell and Anne Rice both use their love of their home towns to add local colour and extra social depth to their best work, and for the most part this works to Lindqvist's advantage. From the glue-sniffing teenagers lurking in the apartment block basements to the circle of alcoholics who are amongst the only people who actually suspect the truth and hang out around their favourite Chinese restaurant, the book is littered with vivid characters and their favourite haunts, and I would be completely unsurprised to learn that many of these people and places arise from Lindqvist's own experience; the bullying sequences, in particular, have an air of authenticity to them which made me remember my less happy school days. But whilst the book is littered with horrible examples of humanity, the primary bully tormenting Oskar stands out as the character that Lindqvist seems to have the least sympathy with; there's a token effort to give him some hidden depths, but you can tell that Lindqvist's heart isn't in it. Killing off someone who bullied you at school in a book is not something I can really condemn, but letting petty literary revenge upstage what should have been the real climax of the book (not to mention letting the audience feel more sympathy for a murderous pedophile than the bully character) seems to show a distressingly skewed set of priorities.

That said, as far as first novels go I don't think I've ever seen one as confident and accomplished as Let the Right One In. Lindqvist could be a great new figure in horror fiction. I just hope he doesn't go Anne Rice on us.

Themes: Books, Horror

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Comments (go to latest)
Sonia Mitchell at 00:28 on 2009-05-16
Interesting review. Unless I'm misreading, you don't mention Eli's gender. Deliberate?
(I gave in and amazoned it, but won't mention it in case it was on purpose)

In fact, we're told that the reason that vampires are rare is that most newly-infected vampires commit suicide rather than take a human life - which seems an awfully optimistic assessment of the ability of people to priorities their ethics over their survival instinct, but there you go

Heh. I'm with you here.
Arthur B at 03:40 on 2009-05-16
Interesting review. Unless I'm misreading, you don't mention Eli's gender. Deliberate?
(I gave in and amazoned it, but won't mention it in case it was on purpose)

Yeah, I skipped over Eli's gender because it becomes something of an issue towards the end of the book and I didn't want to throw out too many spoilers (though I suppose it's fine to chat about it a bit in the comments section since if people really didn't want to read plot points they wouldn't read this far). Suffice to say, there's some gender-bending involved, and the reasons behind it are pretty shocking and are tied into Eli's origins. Said origins are fun and creepy, but were edited out (along with the gender issues) of the film, which makes sense because they're a tangent that isn't 100% essential to the core plot, although it does lend a new dimension to Oskar and Eli's relationship. (That said, it doesn't actually change things as much as you'd think - but by the time Oskar finds out what the deal is he's already had enough to process.)
Rami at 21:14 on 2009-05-16
I thought the vampire was played by a girl -- is it somehow not female? Like some webcomic elves?
Wardog at 21:16 on 2009-05-16
Suffice to say, there's some gender-bending involved, and the reasons behind it are pretty shocking and are tied into Eli's origins. Said origins are fun and creepy, but were edited out...

I'm intrigued, what's this about?

By the way, this sounds like a really intriguing book. I'm almost tempted to read it, except I get on so badly with horror as a rule.
Arthur B at 02:11 on 2009-05-17
OK, basically it all comes back to the vampire who infected Eli, who's this nebulous presence which is only occasionally seen throughout the book - we never find out the creature's name, even - but who seems to be a sort of Gilles de Rais-type figure (or might even be the man himself, surviving well beyond the era in which he was reputed to have died). Gilles de Rais was, as any fule kno, a murderous pedophile who used his position as feudal overlord of his domain to procure youths from amongst the peasantry and do all sorts of terrible things to them.

We find out, eventually, that Eli was a boy who was castrated, abused, and vampirised by the elder vampire in a manner reminiscent of the tortures allegedly perpetrated by Gilles de Rais - and it's the point where we learn this story, incidentally, which marks the full humanisation of Eli. Previously, it's ambiguous as to whether Eli is simply a monster in human form or a human being afflicted by and trying to deal with powerful inhuman urges; the fact that he is emphatically the latter means that Eli, personally, becomes a tragic figure we can sympathise with, even though we're still afraid of the part of him which lusts for blood.

Anyway, Eli claims to be a girl for much of the book (and, as far as I can tell, actually is a girl in the film). Because he was vampirised at a prepubescent stage he can pass perfectly well, but there's no particular need for him to do so - there doesn't seem to be much suggestion that he/she actually has gender issues or identifies as female, although given Eli's past and the fact that he/she is a 200 year old vampire trapped in a prepubescent state it's really hard to tell. I think at the end of the day it's a hunting tactic - Eli mentions that he normally finds victims using a "little girl lost" act - as well as part of the mindfuck that Eli is pulling with Hakan in the opening stages of the book. at 16:46 on 2009-05-17
Interesting review! I've only seen the movie, but you brought up the very things I thought about the ending. I was confused at it suddenly seeming to turn into a bully revenge movie, and assumed at the end that what we were seeing was the same type beginning as we'd had to the relationship between Eli and Håkan. Also that it seemed like it was billed as doing something new with the vampire story when, as you say, it's really not new so much as just done well and with the unique voice of this author.
Cammalot at 02:52 on 2014-10-25

Has anybody gotten to read the follow-up short, "Let The Old Dreams Die?"
Arthur B at 03:03 on 2014-10-25
Wasn't aware there was one; where would I find it?
Cammalot at 22:59 on 2014-10-25
I've seen it in Waterstones, finally in paperback, in a short story collection of the same name.
Arthur B at 23:09 on 2014-10-25
Awesome - will make a point to check it out.
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