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Plumbing the depths

February 3, 2011

Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqviste, Text Publishing, $32.95

Horror novels are a tricky genre, I think. They’re not like horror films, which often seem to revel in their ridiculousness or gratuity and can still be fabulously entertaining even when they’re really, really bad. Whereas many horror films seem to openly embrace cliches and long-established audience expectations—don’t get laid if you want to live, never say “I’ll be back,” always run upstairs when the killer is chasing you inside the house, thereby minimising your chance of escape and maximising audience thrills—horror novels don’t seem to conform to a similar set of rules. Perhaps I’m being too broad; I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, and at one time I read a lot of Richard Laymon, but I abandoned horror partway through high school and never really went back to it.

But John Ajvide Lindqvist is a writer I happily make an exception for. I read his critically acclaimed Let the Right One In after seeing—and loving—the Swedish film adaptation. Lindqvist’s novel manages to take the thoroughly flogged dead horse of vampire romance and turn it into something completely, wonderfully different. Let the Right One In is a much a story of love, loyalty, and the pain of adolescence as it is about bloodthirsty supernatural beings, and Lindqvist artfully ties it all together with the strings of moral complexity. Similarly, his subsequent novel, Handling the Undead, was an unusually subtle and contemplative zombie tale that had more philosophy than gore. Lindqvist is a horror novelist for those who are after more than just a decent body count.

Harbour, Lindqvist’s latest effort, is a completely different supernatural outing that once again proves the author’s ability to weave gruesome thrills with probing human drama. In an interesting and effective twist, Lindqvist’s monster in Harbour is as real as it is frightening: the sea.

The story begins in 2004: a young couple, Anders and Cecilia, and their headstrong four-year-old daughter, Maja, are on holiday on the island of Domaro, where Anders grew up. An afternoon trip to the island lighthouse goes horribly wrong when Maja (who wears a red coat, perhaps in a nod to the classic horror movie Don’t Look Now) disappears. Two years on, Anders and Cecilia’s relationship is in tatters, and Anders is a despairing alcoholic who tortures himself daily with the unknown fate of his only child. He returns to Domaro, and to his old holiday cottage, which is still—creepily—full of Maja’s old toys. But it quickly becomes clear that Anders is not alone—someone, or something, is trying to communicate with him. As he desperately attempts to decipher a series of cryptic messages, he begins to unearth Domaro’s dark past, and the strange, ancient connection between the villagers and the sea.

Of course, the locals, salty sea dogs that they are, refuse to relinquish their secrets easily; if they did, Harbour wouldn’t run to almost 500 pages. But hefty length is no impediment when you’re caught up in a good story, and that’s exactly what Lindqvist delivers here. He gets away with a incorporating a large cast of characters and frequent flashback sequences, two strategies that have spelled the narrative undoing of many a novel. But Lindqvist avoids the easy cliches that are offered by writing about a remote and tight-knit community—Domaro isn’t Sweden’s answer to The Wicker Man. The characters here are rich with imperfections and oddities, and make an altogether more finely rendered and intriguing bunch than those in Lindqvist’s last novel, Handling the Undead. The flashbacks are used to great effect, providing character backstories that, while interesting in themselves, also act as puzzle pieces of the book’s central mystery.

Lindqvist’s rather droll sense of humour adds a touch of relief as the tension and violence start to build: Simon, Anders’ aging uncle, reflects dryly on the state of physical relations between he and his partner, Anna-Greta: “this was the irony of old age: the only part of him that wasn’t rigid and stiff was the part he wanted to be.” Particularly clever is Lindqvist’s portrayal of two teenagers who are so obsessed with The Smiths that they converse almost entirely in Morrissey’s lyrics. “What are you doing?” one asks the other as they prepare to commit an act of violence. “Burning down the discotheque,” his companion nonchalantly replies.

Lindqvist’s skill lies in his ability to effortlessly meld the surreal with the real. There are some bizarre sequences in this novel, including a memorably Hitchcockian encounter with a group of gulls, and a moment when Anders suddenly becomes aware of the water that surrounds him on land: “he could follow it through the cold-water pipes, feel the drips from the leaking kitchen tap where he lost contact with it for half a second until it joined the thin film of water finding its way into the waste pipe and continuing downwards, out…”  What’s so effective about Harbour is that the heart of Domaro’s dark mystery isn’t a mythical creature, but part of nature: the sea is something that all of us are familiar with, that many of us love. Of course, it has long been feared and revered in equal measure, but Lindqvist’s approach is a unique one, blending the reality of the sea’s power with the unknown and terrifying possibility of its true depths. After a litre of red wine, Anders sums it up with brutal simplicity: “the sea. And us poor bastards with our little flashing lights.”

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