The Swedish Invasion

Handling the Undead cover artWhile I was already going to write about this topic anyway, my bus ride to the Martin Luther King Library today really cemented my resolve.  Sitting on the seat in front of me on the 70 bus was the discarded travel section of the January 23rd Sunday Washington Post. The bold headline Sweden Grabs the Mike was just shouting at me. I grabbed it, and read it right there on my way to work today.  Chris Richards' article tapped into the musical vein of what I have come to realize is now a full on Swedish pop culture invasion.

The Sweden that we're seeing in 2011 is not the glittery disco land of Abba. What's coming through now is the darker, grittier side of the land of the midnight sun. The most popular novels of the last few years have been Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. If you haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, you should at least see the two films (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire) that have been made so far, if only to see the awesomeness of actress Noomi Rapace.

The stories follow the relationship between journalist Michael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist, a reporter specializing in exposing scandals and conspiracies in the government and mega-corporations, finds himself brought in to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy heiress. Salander, originally sent to hack and spy on Blomkvist, becomes intrigued by the case and winds up working with him directly. But Lisbeth has a dark and dangerous past, and it's starting to catch up with her. If I could compare it to anything I've seen before, I would say that it would be on par with the kind of suspense thrillers of John Grisham or James Patterson, though the violence is way more hardcore than either of those writers would ever touch.

It's a terrible shame that Larsson passed away before seeing the overwhelming success of his novels and their film adaptations outside of Sweden. However, if the rumors in the New York Times Magazine article about estate of Stieg Larsson versus his longtime lover in conflict over the possible draft manuscripts of a fourth and fifth book pan out, we may yet see more Blomkvist and Salander adventures on the horizon. 

Personally, I've been engrossed in the works of horror novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist. I first ran across him when the feature film Let the Right One In came to the E Street Theater. A friend of mine jokingly referred to it as the best teen vampire romance movie that year (a not-so-subtle dig at the Twilight franchise). But Let the Right One In lingered with me for a long time. The film triggered the wonderful disturbing feeling you get when a horror movie gets under your skin. It's got just the right amount of jumps, twists and reveals to make you really feel the fear. And when the snowfall kept us trapped in our house a couple weeks ago, I dug out the movie and watched it again. Winter is the perfect time to watch Let the Right One In; just watch it and you'll see.

I happened across the original novel by Lindqvist in a bookstore shortly after seeing the film and I figured it was worth it since I loved the movie so much.  The book was even more disturbing, and pushed so much farther than the movie did.  The sheer scope of it all was magnificent.  You learn about Eli's history, and one of the characters who was slain in the film has a grisly turn in the book that left me with a traumatic vision that was probably the most disturbing thing I have ever read. It was absolutely gripping.  I have yet to see the English Language film adaptation Let Me In, but I'm hoping to get to it soon.

Yesterday I finished reading Lindqvist's second novel Handling the Undead. In it, a freak accident makes the last two months of people who died in Stockholm suddenly not be dead any more.  Well, their bodies move around, but they couldn't really do much.  Though the one important thing that did occur around the re-living was that they generated a weird psychic field where living people could hear the thoughts of each other, but not the dead. What ensues is government officials and individuals trying to figure out what to do with a couple thousand undead people while they all slowly go crazy from constantly being exposed to everyone's thoughts.

While thought provoking, it didn't elicit the same kind of soul-shattering horror that Let the Right One In did. It felt on par with some of Stephen King's more tame works like The Gunslinger, not overly horrific but with an undercurrent of universe building.  These characters could easily be characters that recur in other novels.  Their story feels like it isn't over yet. To me, the Stockholm that these people live in is the same one as Let the Right One In. Similar to Stephen King's affinity for his fictional town of Derry, Maine or H.P. Lovecraft's use of Arkham, Massachusetts, Lindqvist is creating a Stockholm where the darkness is full of terrors. I hope that this suspicion plays out in future novels.

I'll never abandon Abba, but now I know so much more of what's out there in Swedish literature and film.  Perhaps I'll go poking around the collection to see if we have any more of the music listed in that Post article next. I'm positive we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended, of Swedish pop culture, and I truly hope there's much more to come.