Book review: Harbour

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John Ajvide Lindqvist Quercus, £17.99

JOHN Ajvide Lindqvist is rightly seen as one of the most exciting writers working in the horror genre at the moment – a rival, indeed, to Stephen King.

His two previous novels that have been translated into English – Let The Right One In, now not one, but two, films – and Handling The Undead – gave an intelligent twist to familiar monsters; vampires and zombies respectively. His new book, Harbour, sees him branching out into nightmares of his own making.

Anders grew up on Domar, a remote Swedish island, and married his childhood sweetheart. One winter's day, they took their child, Maja, over the frozen sea to the lighthouse at Gvasten. Maja disappeared. The principal action of the novel takes place a few years later, with an alcoholic Anders returning, alone, to the island, trying to make sense of his life.

He is tended by his grandmother, the formidable ex-smuggler Anna-Greta, and his step-grandfather Simon, a former illusionist who knows more about real magic than he says. Then the really bad things start happening.

Lindqvist's evocation of place is stronger here than in the previous novels, with their hinterlands of abandoned, brutalist tower blocks. It's an isolated community, riven with problems like alcoholism, xenophobia, simmering feuds and barely concealed poverty.

Although the publishers have chosen to call the book Harbour, it's an inelegant translation of the original Swedish Mnniskohamn, which literally means "human harbour" or "human disguise" (Harbouring might have been a better title, with its connotations of secrets and fugitives).

Lindqvist rather cheekily – and cleverly, given Simon's love of misdirection – leads the reader up various garden paths. Anders wonders why no-one ever suspected him of killing his daughter: her disappearance was almost expected.

There are old legends about inquisitions, and modern rumours about war-time disasters that weren't caused by the enemy. But this isn't Children Of The Corn with herring.

As with Let The Right One In and Handling The Undead, there is a clear, almost predictable, sense of humans being every bit as wicked as the "monsters". The key scene here involves a teenage strip poker party, and the brutal moment where the gang leaders decide the hangers-on have overstepped the mark, leading to a shocking, queasy retribution.

It also precipitates some of the future horrors; as the victims return, somewhat changed, but still with all their teenage enthusiasms. There can't be many horror writers who can construct a whole chilling sequence out of lyrics from The Smiths.

Likewise, the reader is again encouraged to empathise with the intruders, although not as effectively as with the pitiable, harmless, mindless "re-living" in Handling The Undead (where Lindqvist wrote what almost seems like a manifesto: "society is judged on how it treats its weakest members, and who can be weaker than the dead?").

Lindqvist is also willing to take on some of the stereotypes that bedevil horror writing. Perhaps, one character wonders, the ones who disappear from Domar are the bad people, the ones we actually want rid off. Anders, of course, reacts badly, before wondering if his daughter really was as lovely as she is in her absence and as a memory. It's as if the spiky iconoclasm of a writer like Lionel Shriver has been adapted to the horror genre.

None of this would matter except that Lindqvist's prose is both restrained and elegant in a form which often encourages hysteria and verbosity.

There are neat touches – a child notices the "particular kind of peculiar" in his mother's eyes as she falls in love. But he is at his best when the reader's imagination is left to flesh out the sparse bones of the awfulness: "a child was screaming. A single, long, wailing note. Screaming is the wrong word. Wailing is the wrong word. Child is the wrong word".

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 17 October, 2010