Handling The Undead Essay

Since the release of the 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, most “zombie invasion” narratives have dealt primarily with zombies as an external threat, an anonymous, unreasoning force that can never be controlled or incorporated into human society.  As such, the typical zombie story is driven by the fear of the living survivors of the undead; the zombies can be killed, evaded, or fortified against, but never empathized with. But what if, instead of being an unthinking, unknowable threat to civilization, the zombies were only shadows of our loved ones who passed away, and the true “zombie apocalypse” was the horror of humanity trying to understand why their beloved family members had returned from the grave? In Handling the Undead, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, tells a tale of a civilization in crisis as it tries to communicate with the “reliving”—zombies risen during an intense electrical disruption that pose no violent threat to humanity, but challenge society’s philosophical notions of what it means to be alive.

After the passing of a bizarre electrical phenomenon which is so intense that no electrical device can be turned off during it, corpses of the recently dead (within roughly two months of the electrical storm) begin to rise from morgues and graveyards.  Despite their lack of aggression to humanity, the zombies still frighten and shock many people who must come to terms with the fact that their loved ones have “returned” with no sentience, will, or (in most cases) ability to speak.  An elderly woman who believes the coming of zombies is the Christian resurrection of the dead must confront the difficulties of taking care of her unloved husband once more, now as a rotting corpse; a grandfather tortured by the loss of his grandson digs up the unspeaking, immobile, but still “reliving” remains of his grandson, and a husband, whose wife died in a car crash, is shocked as his former wife becomes one of the few zombies capable of speech.  Attitudes towards the zombies vary from shocked revulsion to scientific interest and attempts to find ways to communicate with the zombies.  In trying to analyze the zombies, government officials, scientists, and everyday people ponder the significance of the zombies, whether their mental and physical deterioration means humans have a soul or not, and what form a soul takes.

Lindqvist is not a horror writer who specializes in adrenaline-driven “jump” scares, instead utilizing a more methodical, thoughtful writing style.  There is a strong sense of melancholy and loss as the main characters realize that being undead does not restore their loved ones to the state they were when they were alive, and when they are forced to attempt to find a different standard of “normal” life.  Occasionally the regular writing narrative style is broken up, with transcripts of interviews with the living (and the undead), as well as timelines where the crisis—and the government’s response to it—are recorded in military time. These elements of the novel give a sense of depth and realism to its universe, as well as allowing the reader to understand the parallel events the multiple protagonists encounter in context.  Lindqvist’s sense of characterization is so strong that he is one of the few major writers who can portray video games and the sensory world they inhabit accurately, as “gamer girl” Flora contrasts the game Resident Evil with the actual zombies she encounters in the novel’s universe.  All these elements make Handling the Undead a rewarding read, although more challenging and slower-paced than many horror novels.

Handling the Undead is a very unique zombie novel and is likely to be very divisive among horror fans.  Readers simply looking for scares, action, and blood are unlikely to be thrilled by a novel that focuses on human relationships, characterization, and philosophical questions on the meaning of life and death. For those who have always wondered how society would respond to the coming of zombies, as well as those who pondered whether seeing their lost loved ones again would be a good thing or not, Handling the Undead is a compelling portrayal of how the living strive to comprehend death.  Lindqvist’s imaginative, thoughtful writing avoids the standard “zombie apocalypse” clichés and strives for an approach to the zombie crisis defined by memory and emotion rather than constant violence and fear.


Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Let the Old Dreams Die

[Lindqvist] is extremely adept at crafting relatable characters and situations that make you forget you are slumming it in genre.

Who wrote it?

The guy who I'm sure is equally thankful for/sick of being referred to as the Swedish Stephen King, Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist.

Plot in a box:

A collection of horror shorts, including sequel stories to both Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead.

Invent a new title for this book:

Paper Walls +1

Read this if you like: 

Stephen King; believable, character driven horror; and Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, obviously.

Meet the book's leads:

A plethora of Scandinavian every(wo)men, including a couple of familiar faces.

Said leads would be portrayed in a movie by:

I don't know. The Swedish national curling team? The staff of your local Ikea?

Setting: Would you want to live here?

Despite being cold and full of creepy goings-on, Sweden sounds lovely this time of year.

What was your favorite sentence?

There was something vaguely threatening about the two children moving behind the smiling, unsuspecting family. Like predators.

The Verdict: 

Bottom line: if you like what Lindqvist does you'll like this collection. For me, personally, it highlights his strengths as a storyteller, and to a lesser degree, his weaknesses. And what I consider weaknesses might just come down to personal preference.

Lindqvist grounds his horror in realism, whether he is writing about vampires or zombies or inter-dimensional intestines that want to devour human souls. He is extremely adept at crafting relatable characters and situations that make you forget you are slumming it in genre. For example, Let the Right One In is essentially a coming of age novel. It just happens to feature a character who is a vampire. I would argue that its sequel story, "Let the Old Dreams Die," isn't horror at all. It's a love story, and could be the strongest piece in this collection. Other standouts include "Equinox," about a woman's relationship with a dead man; "The Substitute," which combines the idea of body snatchers with Pink Floyd; and "Tindalos," which incorporates elements of Lovecraftian mythos. 

For me, ambiguity is what makes horror scary. Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. Even if there is a specific threat, if you don't know the "why?" of a situation you can't make sense of it, and that's terrifying. That being said, too much or too little "why?" can ruin a story. I can suspend my disbelief for the "what," but the "why?" really has to work. It is Lindqvist's "why?"s that don't always do it for me. His novel, Handling the Undead, is a great take on the zombie genre that treats the "reliving" as a real world problem. Not a threat, but an obligation. A chore. But when we finally get a reason for why the dead are coming back to life, the story loses its tether to the real world. It ends on an unsatisfying note of hokey spiritualism. (Conversely, I found the opposite to be true of "Final Processing," the Handling the Undead sequel contained in this collection. I liked the resolution much better than the build-up.)

Thankfully, most of the stories in Let the Old Dreams Die fall into the "why?" sweetspot. Just the right mix of ambiguity and resolution. You believe most of these events could happen, even if there is no way they could possibly happen. That's a tough thing to pull off. And even though Lindqvist isn't successful 100% of the time, when he does get it right, he gets it right. And that puts him way ahead of the game in my book.

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