Cover of the First Edition

Like that other great creation of modern horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster – who appears in a new guise every few years, recently and memorably in the revamped Battlestar Galactica – the vampire is an enduring and ever-flexible framework on which to hang any number of metaphors.  In the most popular iteration of the contemporary boom in vampire film and fiction, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series brings this metaphoric structure back to the psychological/sexual terrain first explored by Bram Stoker in the original 1897 novel Dracula.   For Meyer, the vampire legend is a template with which to draw a clunky, simplistic allegory about sexual abstinence, one which draws heavily if implicitly on Meyer’s Mormonism.  Why the Twilight books are so popular is a mystery to me – and I suspect to anyone who is not a teenaged girl (though I must admit to only having read the first novel; I did try to read the second novel – for professional, academic reasons, of course – but stopped dead after the very first scene, caught on the simple fact that the two lead characters are completely unlikable).  Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the novels capture something that strikes a chord for many readers, though again they are mostly teenaged girls.

This is supported by the fact that the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer covered very similar territory with considerably more depth and subtlety almost a decade before Meyer began her saga.  Both series turn on a romance between a vampire and a young human girl, toying with images of the monstrous and with conventional notions of the perverse.  In the end, however, both are rather tame in light of a superior example of the vampire/human romance, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 Swedish novel Låt Den Rätte Komma In (translated into English variably as Let the Right One In or Let Me In).  While there is a good deal that could be said about the borderline-sexual friendship between Oscar, a young outcast, and Eli, a vampire who moves in next to Oscar in a block of council flats in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, Lindquist’s novel is perhaps even more interesting in its employment of the vampire mythos to deconstruct and challenge contemporary suburban living.  In this, he turns the vampire story into an interrogation of modern alienation, coming out the other side with a pointed social criticism that is far more subversive and far more convincing than anything Twilight has to offer.

While there are any number of texts that seek to expose the dark underbelly of the respectable surface of suburbia – and here we need only think of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet or Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road – Lindqvist’s novel suggests something rather different, something rather more disturbing: that the rationalised post-War suburb is itself a manifestation of evil (or the metaphysical Other), or is at least a willing participant in it.  The novel is a catalogue of suburban problems, from drug abuse to broken families, from individual alienation to the kind of quiet, almost casual violence that occasionally erupts at places like Columbine High School (and Littleton, Colorado bears no small resemblance to Blackeberg).  When Eli, among the most tragic figures in the long history of fictional vampires, moves to Blackeberg, she finds the perfect place to live the sort of closed-off, impermanent life that her vampirism forces her to live.  In Oscar, a sad, quiet boy who is mercilessly bullied at school, she finds a perfect companion, one who is perfectly and disturbingly willing to commit violence.  While Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable 2008 film adaptation of Låt Den Rätte Komma In, which was shot largely on location in Blackeberg (indeed, it opens with a stunning night-time image of the suburb’s only subway station), captures some of this, the novel brings this theme to the forefront.  The novel – and to be fair, the film – has a remarkable sense of place, capturing something of the inherent disconnect of people living in new, purpose-built, rationalised cities.  The novel opens with a telling section titled ‘The Location’ in which the omniscient third-person narrator tells the reader about the short history of Blackeberg, which was built as a whole in the 1950s:

It was not a place that developed organically, of course.  Here everything was carefully planned from the outset.  And people moved into what had been built for them.  Earth-coloured concrete buildings, scattered about the green fields …

It is big.  It is new.  It is modern.

But that wasn’t the way it was.

They came on the subway.  Or in cars, moving vans.  One by one.  Filtered into the finished apartments with their things.  Sorted their possession into measured cubbies and shelves, placed the furniture in formation on the cork floor.  Bought new things to fill the gaps …

A good place.  That’s what people said to each other over the kitchen table a month or so after they had moved in.

‘It’s a good place we’ve come to’.

Only one thing was missing.  A past …

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church.  Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, its rationality.  It tells you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and of terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.[1]

For Lindqvist, place is defined by history and by those who have passed through it.  This comes across clearly in a passage when Oscar, walking out in the forest towards a sledding hill one night, passes by a deserted and much older house:  ‘He reached the place where the path started to bear down strongly towards Kvarnviken Bay, and climbed onto his Snow racer.  The ghost house was a black wall next to the hill, a reprimand: You are not allowed to be here in the dark.  This is our place now.  If you want to play here, you’ll have to play with us’.[2] The whole of Blackeberg is, in a sense, a ghost house, a place empty of its own history but still in the grip of the past and its shadows.  In the 1980s, when the story is set, Blackeberg has seen only a few decades of human habitation and thus has very little memory; however, this doesn’t shield the suburb and its residents from what has come before.  The paired remarks, ‘But that wasn’t the way it was’ and ‘It explains in part how unprepared they were’, are both foreshadows of the dark story to come.  These interlocutions can also be read as a deliberate challenge to what it means to be big, new, and modern.  Into this modern place, which has no regard for the metaphysical, Lindqvist invites the tragic figure of Eli, who undermines all of this, suggesting that there is no way of escaping the legacy of the past, that modernity, despite its pretences to having done away with the superstitions and unreason, is in fact infected with metaphysical, unexplainable evil.  Eli embodies this unreason, the unthought (to borrow a word from Michel Foucault) of the modern city as Oscar gradually comes to realise that there is something profoundly different about his new friend.  He thinks: ‘She was scary … there was something in her, something that was … Pure Horror.  Everything you were supposed to watch out for.  Heights, fire, shards of glass, snakes.  Everything his mum tried so hard to keep him safe from’.[3] Lindqvist’s modernity offers Oscar no refuge for these things.  That very few people in the novel can ever bring themselves to believe that Eli is a figure of mythical, supernatural violence merely underlines this.  That Oscar, a product of the modern family structure and a resident of the modern city, is at least as disturbing a character as Eli further hammers this home; the rationalised city, and by extension modernity itself, will never be free of the dark shadows of history.  In fact, the well-lit rooms and public spaces of Blackeberg might just need these shadows.

A conversation between two of the town’s drunks, heartbreakingly realised figures of both despair and ragged humanity who become major players in the story, adds another dimension to this critique.  Lacke tells his friend:

I don’t want to be here anymore …

Here, the whole shebang.  Blackeberg.  Everything.  These buildings, the walking paths, the spaces, people, everything is just … like a single big damn sickness, see?  Something went wrong.  They thought all this out, planned it to be … perfect, you know. And in some damn wrinkle it went wrong, instead.  Some shit.

Like … I can’t explain it … like they had some idea about the angles, or fucking whatever, the angles of the buildings, in their relation to each other, you know.  So it would be harmonious or something.  And then they made a mistake in their measurements, their triangulation, whatever the hell they call it, so that it was all a little off from the start and it went downhill from there.  So you walk here with all these buildings and you just feel that … no.  No, no, no.  You shouldn’t be here.  This place is all wrong, you know?

Except it isn’t the angles, it’s something else, something that just … like a disease that’s in the … walls and I … don’t want any part of it any more.[4]

Blackeberg, Sweden

Blackeberg, Sweden

For Lacke, the evil that Eli brings (she kills two of Lacke’s closest friends) is a function of the place itself, not an incidental or outside force.  He assigns to urban planning an agency to create mood, atmosphere, and event that is perhaps exceeds even what the most altruistic of urban planners imagine is possible.  Indeed, in beginning with a description of the suburb, the novel offers us a sense that Eli is drawn to the place, called somehow by its wrongness.

This speaks to the inevitable dark side of Michel de Certeau’s comment (see The Unofficial City), that haunted places are the only places where people can live.  If places aren’t haunted by their own history, then they produce or attract their own kinds of haunting.  Låt Den Rätte Komma In tells us that Eli will always live next door and suggests that we as moderns are perfectly willing to open the off-white security doors of our flats and invite her inside.

Maybe this isn’t even a choice; maybe she’s here already.

Leandersson as Eli in Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

Lina Leandersson as Eli in Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

[1] John Ajvide Lindqvist, Låt Den Rätte Komma In, trans. Ebba Segerberg (London: Quercus, 2007): 1-2.

[2] Lindqvist, Komma In, 243.  Emphasis in original.

[3] Lindqvist, Komma In, 242.

[4] Lindqvist, Komma In, 363.  Emphasis and ellipses in original.