Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist
To round off Zombie Appreciation Month I’ve decided to read Handling The Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
Set in Stockholm, during the midst of a heatwave, strange things are starting to occur. Electrical appliances won’t switch off and everyone is suffering from unexplained headaches. Over the course of a single night, every person that has died in the previous two months is reanimated, including those that have been buried.
The ever pragmatic authorities move from one disastrous idea to another when trying to find a solution to the problem. The dead are all collected and taken to a hospital but the staff are unable to cope with the demands of caring for the deceased. It seems that when brought together in groups, the ‘reliving’ are able to channel the emotions of the living. They also cause spontaneous telepathy amongst the living. These mental stresses prove too difficult for the doctors and nurses to manage. Unsure sure of how to proceed, the government try to relocate the reliving to disused housing and secure them behind an electric fence.
There is a certain degree of ambiguity regarding the cause of reanimation. I liked this as it gave the author an opportunity to let his characters, and the reader, ponder why this horrific situation has occurred.
There are three main narrative strands that interweave with one another. Gustav is a retired reporter who has recently lost his grandson, Elvy is preparing to bury her husband of forty years while David loses his wife in a car accident.
It struck me that though the novel features the undead it’s essentially all about how the living try to deal with loss. David is initially numbed by the abrupt death of his partner. This turns to horror when he discovers her reanimation, and his emotions are tugged in every direction. David is written as a truly tragic figure. The irony was not lost on me that when we first meet him, we discover his profession is as a stand-up comedian. He feels adrift, and it is only towards the novel’s end that he finds anything resembling peace.
Elvy turns to her religion when faced with what she considers to be forthcoming Rapture. She experiences a vision of the Virgin Mary urging her to save as many souls as she can. This brings her into direct conflict with her grand-daughter, Flora. Religion focuses quite heavily in Elvy and Flora’s story. Both characters are almost polar opposites of one another when it comes to their respective beliefs.
The scenes with Gustav and his grandson were particularly moving. It was heartbreaking reading about Gustav’s attempts to make his grandson presentable after spending hours digging up the young boy’s coffin by hand. Gustav has a heart condition and it seemed to me that every step he took to save his un-dead grandson only took him one step closer to his own demise. Gustav’s estranged daughter, Anna, is also an interesting character. She has spent nearly two months getting over her son’s death only to be faced with his return. Her interactions with Gustav and their prickly relationship shed light on Gustav’s motivations.
This novel is very different from everything else I have read this month. These zombies are not after your brains – they are shells of the people they once were, shadows almost. The longer they have been dead the more withdrawn and inhuman they seem to be. There is some force that drives the dead but it is not immediately obvious what that force is. As the story develops all the characters are exposed to this sense of uncertainty and menace.
For the most part Handling the Undead’s horror is psychological in nature rather than the physical horror in the other books I’ve read this month. The horror lies within the fact that the main characters, all of whom have suffered a recent loss, are forced to face something that looks like there dearly departed, but clearly isn’t – as much as they may wish it to be so. There appears to be a correlation between the flow of the story, and the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The desperate situation of the main protagonists is heartbreaking at times. I didn’t really expect this when dealing with zombies. I have always thought of zombie stories as a purely physical and gory horror. It is an interesting move by the author and I think it works quite well.
I’ve not read the author’s other novels, Let The Right One In and Harbour, but based on my experience with Handling the Undead I think I will give them a try.