Romance is a narrative space that has birthed some enduring clichés: I’d Take a Bullet for You; I Knew I Loved You before I Met You; What Took You So Long? These phrases are attractive because they create a paradigm in which there is only one choice, in which the tragic and the correct are one and the same thing. So it is with the exhortation to ‘Let the Right One in’: this imperative expresses the commentator’s capitulation to life’s generous and resolute pairing strategy. There’s one person out there for you, and when you find them, you let yourself love them, and you let them be with you. But any of us familiar with love’s angled horns knows that love is not the cakewalk that the easy gait of these phrases makes it out to be. What happens, for example, when a person grows to love a predator; when a human falls in love with a vampire?
Oskar is a young boy who imagines the earth of Blackeberg, his hometown, drinking the blood of his bullies; a lonely and damaged child whom older children in his school and apartment block take advantage of: selling him stolen toys at exorbitant prices and calling him ‘Little Pig’. Nosebleeds and wet pants are daily problems, and he’s chubby from the confectionery he regularly swipes from stores. His troubles show no signs of abating, and filter through even to how he spends his time waiting for his mother to come home from work – a scrapbook he keeps under a stack of comics contains clippings about grisly crimes from newspapers and the Home Journal. So it’s no wonder that Oskar is intrigued when a young boy is killed in nearby Vällingby.
His loneliness, however, is about to come to an end. In the courtyard of his building one evening, Oskar is imagining himself the attacker and his bully, Jonny, the victim, when a young girl he’s never seen before joins him outside. Eli is quiet but strange, wearing only a thin pink top against the freezing cold. She moves like a cat. There’s something broken about her, too: her first words to Oskar are not ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’, but ‘I can’t be friends with you. Just so you know.’ She smells bad, though she looks like a doll, with her pale, white face and dark hair. Two children used to being alone, their interaction prefaced by antisocial stabs: it’s a heartbreaking premise for a novel’s axial relationship. But it’s delicately handled by John Ajvide Lindqvist, as is every passage in which the children’s rapport is the focus. In particular, the way they finally breach their own defensive barriers to become friends – in the committed, obsessive way that children can foster – is beautiful and quick, an insect’s hop between leaves. Since both are accustomed to being almost alone in the world, their love for one another necessitates a rare brand of support and trust. And that’s even before Oskar discovers why Eli is so strange, for she is, of course, a vampire.
The vampire story can be remade and remodelled endlessly, as a series I’m desperately trying to avoid mentioning by name here has recently shown. Lindqvist’s interpolation of the ancient monster into the contemporary context, along with the ethics, the rules and the history of that special flavour of beast, is a successful and cinematic one – it’s no surprise that Let the Right One In lent itself so wonderfully to a film adaptation. Few Western readers would need to be reminded why the vampire – human-like, eternal, predatory – is so compelling a creature, and therefore so prone to recurring in fiction. Lindqvist’s modern interpretation limps a little with the introduction of a medico-biotic explication of the vampire’s hunger, but is wonderful when focused on the delicate, fierce exchanges between Oskar and Eli.
However, this book is not for the reader who is similarly delicate. Crime fiction, even vampire crime fiction, has traditionally accommodated an author’s interrogation of the socio-cultural landscape. In Let the Right One In, the murders that soon creep from Vällingby to Blackeberg are not the only criminal items of note – Eli’s companion, Håkan, is a paedophile who finds opportunities to indulge his vice at the local library, and searches out people for Eli to feed on. Håkan and Eli’s victims are not anonymous or horror-film-glamorous fodder. Vulnerable people are the easiest victims, and so a child, a cancer sufferer, a monobrowed member of a drinking group and a grandmother all succumb to Eli’s unnatural needs. Key to this aspect of the book is Eli’s body, which Lindqvist explicitly renders as a beautiful blank that allows respective characters to perceive her in a range of dangerous and contradictory ways, whether as an object for experimentation, games or desire.
Though as a vampire Eli needs permission to enter a person’s home, she needs no such consent to enter a person’s heart; she has long honed the skills of cultivating human attachment that enable her survival. But it is not only Oskar’s decision to let her – the ostensibly dangerous one – into his life that creates the emotional cynosure of Let the Right One In. At the centre of this book is the combination of sweetness and despair that follows Eli’s decision to abjure her path of centuries to take the risk of letting mortal love into her life, and what that means for her endless existence. It is a decision fraught with the weighty ethics of love, expressed with touching clarity in this book.