Poor vampires. Lately, just like the children of beauty-pageant-obsessed mothers, they’ve been squeezed into sexy costumes and made to pout and cock their hips for a crowing audience. Some people (lots of people) love it, and others just feel a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. The romantic, sparkly notion of vampires has somewhat eclipsed the older, darker, more disturbing vampires lately, but not in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel and bestseller Let the Right One In (2004). Lindqvist puts a dark and original spin on the living-dead. His vampires are capable of forming loyal friendships, a theme in this novel, but they’re not romantic or sexy; they’re weird and stinky and they like Rubik’s Cubes.

In an interview with The Northlander, Lindqvist said he was bored with the popular, romanticized version of vampires and wondered what it would really be like to be a child vampire. He realized it would be “an absolutely horrible existence. Miserable, gross and lonely. And hence the way Eli is depicted.”

The novel opens with a pretty grim version of 1980’s Stockholm, Sweden. Oskar is a slightly dorky, slightly morbid, and seriously bullied 12-year-old who takes out his frustration with life by stabbing trees. His only real friend is his mother – until he meets a strange little girl, Eli, in the playground one night.

Beautiful cover art from the movie-adaptation poster

Eli’s arrival in town sets off a series of strange and frightening events. Lindqvist tells the story of her effect on the town using a roving, third-person-limited point of view (POV) to jump smoothly between Oskar and various side characters. The POV even switches to a squirrel watching from a tree in one chapter.

The novel gets pretty uncomfortable in places, especially as some of the human characters are pretty dark and strange themselves … like the pedophile POV-character who provides an uncomfortable contrast to the vampires and raises the question of who the real monsters are. The reviews for this book are overwhelmingly good but the bad ones seemed mainly from readers who found the pedophile POV too disturbing, and some didn’t even bother to finish the book because of this character.

The tension in the novel stays high because the protagonist is a child and Lindqvist doesn’t hold much back; the reader knows anything can happen, even to the kids. He talks about this in his interview at Constructinghorror.com:

If you want to scare, if you want it to be creepy, then it is very important that the reader or your audience can identify with the person who is to be scared…. And with adult actors there is always a certain barrier that inhibits me from identifying with the person they are playing. They have a certain speech, certain clothes, things that inhibit me. I’m not Brad Pitt no matter how much I would want to be. On the other hand, a child in frame, or text is read as incomplete, and it’s easier to enter the child’s mind.

For me, the standout feature of the book is the narrative style: it’s beautifully crisp and concise with no self-conscious frills or heavy decoration. The narrative voices for each POV are unique and easy to tumble into and believe, and the dialogue is all very human. While some writers might have felt the need to explain exactly what the characters were talking about in every single scene, Lindquist was happy to trust his readers to figure out the meaning from the context.

John Ajvide Lindqvist used to be a stand-up comic and a magician, which requires a very specialized talent for reading and reacting to people, so perhaps his stage experience helped him develop his skill for pacing and for engaging the audience. In the Northlander interview, he mentions writing techniques he uses, saying that he always imagines the reader and takes into consideration whether the text works stylistically when read aloud.

I sit reading the text out loud as I’m writing it to hear that it sounds good, because I know that I’ve got to read it out loud to my wife as well and then it’s got to be fucking good. Otherwise, she’ll say that it’s no good. That makes me sad and I’ve got to re-write it. So I make sure I’ll try to get it right from the beginning.”

Let the Right One In was a memorable read, especially for someone like me who loves social-realistic stories and who grew up on the brilliantly spare and efficient prose of Stephen King (Lindqvist has been called the “Swedish Stephen King”). I also appreciate that the novel is set unashamedly in a specific era with popular culture references and technology; I think the popular advice that writers should avoid cultural references for fear of dating novels is one of the worst pieces of advice floating around out there.

Read this book if you adore dark, atmospheric tales and flawed, eerie characters who will stick in your mind.

My fav quote by another reviewer (Stephen from Goodreads):

Creepy. Not strange sounds and creaking doors creepy. Creepy like that “overly affectionate” uncle who stares at you too often and always wants a hug that lasts for an inappropriate length of time. That kind of creepy.