Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

handling the undead

Zombies are a source of fictional terror when you’re shooting them down “Walking Dead”-style. But what about caring for an undead family member- a spouse, a sibling, a child- when you suspect that there’s spiritually nothing left of them anymore? What would you risk- with the government swooping in to confiscate your dead and take them to a containment unit- if you had the tiniest iota of reason to believe that what they were when they lived was somewhere within them, waiting to be coaxed out?

This is the chilling premise of “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s intriguing take on the zombie genre, “Handling the Undead.” Husband, father, and stand-up comic David’s worst fears are realized when his wife, Eve, is killed in a car accident. But things start to get seriously weird when Eve gets up- after being pronounced dead- and astounds the institute’s doctors.

Similar cases occur all over Sweden, where the dead wake in morgues or in their graves, suddenly alive, and initially harmless, but changed- shells of their former selves. Most of the book is focused on how the citizens deal with their feelings of grief and horror at this shocking occurrence.

Morbidly obese sadsack and newspaper reporter Gustav Mahler rushes to unbury his deceased grandson, Elias, while telepathic widow Elvy (Christian grandmother of a similarly gifted, emo teen, Flora) is reluctant to accept her newly-zombified husband into her life. As it is revealed that the living can read each other’s thoughts while in the company of the undead, causing further discord, the government frets about what to do about the socially marginalized hoards.

I actually liked this book better than Lindqvist’s previous novel, “Let the Right One In,” but not nearly as much as the Swedish film adaptation. I found this book easier to read because there were not as many extraneous characters and subplots as the former (although, to be fair, “Handling the Undead” also had a rather abrupt ending.) The characters in “Handling the Undead” range from pretty well-developed (Flora and Elvy are the highlights of the book) to hardly developed at all (Mahler’s daughter, Anna, who mostly comes of as a passive-aggressive bitch) but for the most part the cast is pretty interestingly written.

The horror of the initial premise, pays off here, with lots of gooey descriptions of zombie guts and decomposition. However, there is also a definite element of tragedy at play as well, as families struggle to cope with their loved ones’ changed natures. There seems to be an undercurrent of political commentary too. The dead (charitably called the ‘reliving’) are shuffled of to a sterile environment and are not exempt from experiments carried out by eager medical personnel.

Like the very sick and disabled, the undead are a problem society simply does not want to deal with. The solution- make the problem go away. This serves as a potent (though decidedly non-PC) allegory. However, I did not like the direct connections drawn between the undead and people with Autism.

Apparently “Handling the Undead” is going to become a TV series, which I am somewhat excited for. I suspect some of the gruesome details (such as the child, Elias’ horrific appearance,) will be gussied up or omitted completely for the sake of so-called ‘good taste’ (on the other hand, the film “Let the Right One In” did fine without the zombie-Hakan attempted rape scene or the icky details of Hakan’s pedophilic escapades from the book.) Also, can we expect a forgettable U.S remake?

To be truthful, I like funny-zombies better than serious-slash-scary-zombies. That said, I enjoy serious zombie stories (such as “The Walking Dead” or “The Returned”) if it has that special something (intriguing characters, genuine scares, or a vitally new take on the familiar story of a worldwide epidemic.) As it so happens, “Handling the Undead” has a little of that something. And I never (I mean never) read horror fiction, but count Lindquist on my radar.

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4 thoughts on “Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist”

  1. Have you read his book of short stories? In that, he returns to old characters and stories. Handling The Dead finds resolution in the story The Final Processing, in which Flora and her grandmother Elvy return.
    Also Oskar and Eli from Let The Right One In make an appearance through someone else’s love story, in the story which the title of the book is taken from. It’s worth reading just for those two.
    I also liked his novel Harbor, and am keeping an eye out for anything new by him.

    1. My mom and Dad got me the book of short stories (“Let the Old Dreams Die,” right?) from a used book store but I have not read it yet. It is still sitting on my shelf. Have you watched the “Let the Right One In” film by Tomas Alfredson? It is my favorite movie and I actually liked it much better than the book. The remake with Chloe Grace Moretz is okay, but doesn’t measure up quality-wise. Type “Let the Right One In” into my search box (the little magnifying glass on the right) and you can read my reviews of the original film and the Lindqvist book. Any comments would be much appreciated. Thank you for visiting my very-overlooked and mostly-unread blog.

      1. I have watched the original movie and loved it-I have the English language one recorded but not seen it yet. I will let you know.
        I will check out your other reviews. And as for your blog being mostly unread-it is a great blog, and most readers go un recorded on your stats as they read it in ‘Reader’-it only records people that visit your blog proper.

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