“Handling The Undead” by John Ajvide Lindqvist – a truly European take on what would happen if the dead came back.

handling-the-undeadI’ve been spending some time in Stockholm recently so I thought I’d read some Swedish horror and who better than John Lindqvist who brought us “Let The Right One In” which was turned into one of the most powerful vampire movies I’ve ever seen (go here if you’re interested).

“Handling The Undead” gives an equally unique and powerful view on zombies. He uses the zombie tropes from “Resident Evil” or “Walking Dead” as pop-culture reference points and then pushes past them to something much more realistic and personal and therefore, much more disturbing.

“Handling The Undead” imagines a freak set of circumstances where,  on a particular day, all those who have died in Stockholm in the past two weeks reanimate and find themselves driven by the urge to go home.

What follows is a thoughtful and emotionally taxing exploration of what it would mean if the bodies and some form of the minds of the dead we have loved and grieved over, came back.

This being Sweden and not the USA, the authorities do not respond with guns and violence but instead, are thrown into a debate about what to do with what they refer to as “The Unliving”. Their task is made more difficult when it becomes clear that, in the presence of groups of the Unliving,  normal people can hear one another’s thoughts and experience each other’s emotions. This does not lead to peace and harmony. It was fascinating to watch the politicians discuss the rights of the Unliving while the army rounded them up and scientist tried to figure out what was animating the Unliving and to what extent they were sentient.

The actions of the government are a like a news channel running in the background rather than the main focus of the story.  The impact of the Unliving is made real through three stories.

One is of a young child who’s recent accidental death has left his young single parent mother and her father drowning in grief and guilt, unable to help each other.

One is of a man whose wife dies in a car accident on the day of the reanimation and who must now cope with the impact of her return, broken and different, on him, his young son and his father-in-law.

One is of a woman and her granddaughter,  both gifted or blighted with second sight, who can feel the presence of the Unliving and struggle to understand what they can do for them.

These stories are harrowing and difficult and focused on the living rather than the Unliving. In their different ways, they are all struggling to come to terms with the necessity of death to give life meaning and whether or not the bodies that have returned are anything more than an echo of the people they used to be.

It is a strange and sometimes difficult book, not a light read, but a compelling mixture of grief and fear and hope.

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