Book Review: Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Undead is the new black. Vampires used to hold sway in horror fiction, with the fashionably black clad children of the night reigning in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But bloodsuckers are so 2003; now zombies are the hot item in horror fiction. The problem is they’re starting to suffer from a massive case of overexposure — not a day goes by without a graphic novel, book, or DVD hitting the shelves featuring a new tale of the flesh craving undead. But if you’re a horror fan looking for an anti-dote to the flesh or brain craving walking dead, look no further.

After knocking it out of the park with his vampiric debut “Let The Right One In”, author John Ajvide Lindqvist faced a bit of an unusual problem. It’s the same problem faced by Peter Benchley and Robert James Waller; namely releasing a second novel after the first was a stratospheric success. He takes an even bigger risk by making zombies the subject of his sophomore effort. After his revisionist vampire tale, does he have the talent to do the same with zombies, the pop culture belle of the ball?

On August 13th, (apparently it was this year, so it was on a Friday), Stockholm’s power grid suffers a catastrophic overload of mysterious origin. The population is stricken with headaches, and animals begin to act oddly agitated. But that’s nothing compared to what comes next, when the recently dead arise and hysteria begins to ensue. The newly risen are dubbed “reliving”, but unlike their cinematic counterparts, they show little tendency towards cannibalism. Wandering back to their old homes and behaving in a catatonic state, they’re rounded up by the government who have little idea what to do with them — or how this phenomenon could have even occurred. While morgues overflow with wandering corpses, families are faced with revisiting loved ones they’ve buried and emotionally said their farewells to.

Lindqvist crafts a zombie novel unlike any written before, a psychological treatise on the effects of the reanimated dead on the living. But the undead seem to take a back seat in “Handling The Undead”, as the author chooses to focus on how humanity would truly deal with the unthinkable event of mass resurrection. There’s a surprising lack of gore in this zombie novel, a genre famed for flesh rending and blood spilling. Aside from a gruesome encounter with a drowned zombie near the conclusion, the terror is subtle and creeps up on you on little cat’s feet. He also makes us feel the emotional torment and turmoil some feel at seeing their loved ones alive, although not truly alive. There’s also some heartbreak of false hope, as some falsely believe they can restore their beloved to life.

“Handling The Undead” isn’t as exquisite as its predecessor; putting the zombies in the background slows the story down and at times the novel feels like it could have been 25% shorter. Story threads like the possibility of an intelligence controlling the zombies, or even an explanation of why they’ve risen, wander through the tale but never stick around to liven things up.

It’s a flawed novel, but flawed in a beautifully terrible sense. The story gets mired midway through, but Lindqvist’s wonderfully lifelike characters make that almost forgivable. Even his undead begin to show some independent personality, a nice change from the mindless feeding machines that they’re usually depicted as. Gore is replaced by slithering dread, making turning the page an occasionally daunting task.

“Handling The Undead” isn’t perfect, but it’s an effective work of horror. A realistically woven tale of a zombie awakening, it shows Lindqvist is a horror talent to stay.

Handling The Undead
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
384 pages $24.99 Thomas Dunne Books

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