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Let the Right One In: A Novel

Let the Right One In: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist Sweden, based on a lot of things I've read about the country, sounds like a great place to live. The country is supposedly one of the happiest countries in the world, which is surprising to me, since the only exposure I have to the country is through the fiction that comes from there. Stieg Larsson's works had a vein of happiness running through an otherwise bleak series, but then there's Let the Right One In, and I don't really know what to think.

The story is a little hard to pin down, since it's not easy to identify the protagonist and the antagonist. Is the story Oskar versus Jonny, or Eli versus the rest of the world, or Oskar and Eli against Håkan, or something else entirely? Part of what makes it difficult to determine is that it's not a traditional vampire novel. Where other authors might focus on the mythology, or what makes their vampires different from all the rest, Lindqvust uses the vampirism as just a small part of a larger, more complex work. The theme of the novel is abuse, either self-inflicted or inflicted by others, but amid it all is this odd, seemingly genuine relationship between two juveniles, one human and one vampire.

Eli, the vampire, is certainly creepy, but the really disturbing characters are the humans that orbit about her. Håkan, her protector, is a pedophile whose main interest in keeping her safe is the fact that she's a two-hundred year-old woman in a twelve year-old body, which he thinks justifies his desire for her; Oskar, the boy who comes to care for Eli, is a bullied young boy with a violent, psychopathic streak. Oskar is the most sympathetic of the characters in the story (his violent tendency only surfaces at the start of the story, and once he gains the confidence that Eli provides, what violence he exhibits is in self-defense against the bullies), but he's still not an entirely "good" character. Even though we root for him, and even though the relationship that develops between him and Eli feels genuine, his motivations are questionable. Jonny, the bully, and one of the antagonists in the novel, has a sadistic streak that crosses the line, a lot like Henry Bowers from It. The torment, while not small in the emotional sense, isn't physically damaging, but as Oskar starts to gain his confidence against him and his cronies, the torment becomes more serious, and more severe.

Lindqvist puts a lot of effort into describing the gorier, most disturbing moments in the story, enough so that it reminds me of the splatterpunk movement from the 1980s (which, now that I think about it, is somewhat fitting since the novel is set in 1981), but in this case, it doesn't feel like graphic descriptions just for the sake of being shocking. That description is needed to raise the level of how disturbing the rest of the moments are. Let the Right One In is horror along the same lines as Geek Love; there are certainly creepy moments, and a lot of violence, but what makes the story truly disturbing is the characters who populate it, and what they're willing to do to further their own needs. Instead of it being a plot-driven story, it's a character study, only one that does a lot deeper than one would expect.

This isn't a novel for everyone, and not even a novel for every horror fan. It's received a lot of acclaim, and rightly so, but those readers going into it thinking it's a "vampire novel" are likely to be disappointed.