In 2009, vampires were so in that everyone was sick of them, and I was a freshman in college. I was a defensive bandwagon-jumper, reading vampire novels incessantly while assuring everyone that I only read the good ones. A course on monsters across media increased my interest—and raised the bar of the quality of vampire lit I was consuming—when my class discussed what societal fears vampires actually represented and how they had evolved over time. Suddenly, the high school paranormal adventures weren’t gripping me like they used to. Maybe my vampire phase is over, I thought, not without a little disappointment.
Midway through that course, our professor assigned a paper on either attending an upcoming comic conference or visiting Salem, MA on Halloween. Being a curmudgeonly old woman at heart, I chose the conference and attended panels on superheroes, Mary Sues, and, of course, the evolution of horror. Just before the horror panel began, I spotted my professor sitting on the other side of the room as well.
Though I have no recollection of what the other two presenters discussed, the third soft-spoken guest addressed gender, identity, and the cycle of violence in a Swedish vampire film called Låt den rätte komma in. His analysis of the plot and characters piqued my curiosity, and when he mentioned that the film was an adaptation of a novel that had been translated into English, my hands itched to hold that book. On the trip home from the conference, I stopped at Borders for a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In.
The novel opens with a friendless boy named Oscar, targeted by his classmates for being overweight and socially awkward. Though the vicious bullying frightens him to incontinence, he delights in the morbid and macabre and collects newspaper clippings on homicides. One night, fantasizing about stabbing his bullies while taking out his anger on a tree, he meets Eli, a girl who has moved into the same apartment complex. Over time, they develop a friendship of sorts, during which Oscar begins to notice that Eli doesn’t act much like a child, or even like someone from the same century.
The novel alternates perspectives across the small Swedish town that serves as the setting. We see Oscar’s biggest bully in his broken home, written in such a way that inspires sympathy but doesn’t excuse his behavior; a cop on the job investigating the murders Eli leaves in her wake, and at home trying to bond with his girlfriend’s teenage son; and Eli’s caretaker, a pedophile so hungry for affection from his “beloved” that he takes up murder, draining his victims’ blood for vampiric consumption. We even get to see one of Eli’s victims who doesn’t die from the encounter and instead begins to turn in the most torturous way.
When I arrived for my next monster class, I brought the book with me to read while we waited for my professor to arrive. He alerted me to his presence with a chuckle.
“I ordered the movie online as soon as I got home,” he said, pointing to my book. “It’s. So. Good.”
I completely agreed. While most vampire novels I was reading at the time involved nonstop drama and anguished acceptance of becoming/being a kind-of monster, Let the Right One In fell more in line with my other favorite vampire novel, ’Salem’s Lot, building suspense by swinging like a pendulum from eerie quiet to visceral gore. There was a constant haze of moral ambiguity across characters and tension that grew not only with the horror on the page but the implications left unsaid.
Vampires may think and feel, but they are monsters, the pages seemed to whisper, and so are humans.
Supernatural moments in the novel were surprisingly rare; more time was devoted to exploring the human psyche, how we respond to terror, and how we create it. Lindqvist embraced the horror of immortality. Sadness was just as prevalent as terror in these characters, and that frank observation of human nature gave me a delicious taste of true psychological horror.
Let the Right One In shaped me into a more mature writer. Its quiet invited my disquiet; anxiety hummed in the back of my mind page by page until its unsettling conclusion—and long after. Though I had known I wanted to be a writer for most of my life, and although genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror had always dominated my bookshelves and library hauls, I had never quite experienced a novel that haunted me quite like Lindqvist’s.
Since I first read this book, I have approached my own writing not with the question of what I can say to make a lasting impression on readers, but on what I can leave unsaid, what I can insinuate, what I can make the readers supply for themselves. Many writers in my life have shown me the art of witty dialogue, action, and adventure, but Lindqvist has kept me up at night with silence. When I think of Let the Right One In, my first thought isn’t necessarily the images on the page. I imagine what Lindqvist left unsaid: the sunlight streaming through the hospital window, the swimming pool, and Oscar’s fingers tapping against a hollow box.
It’s been six years, and I still got a shiver down my spine just typing that. #WritingGoals