I am a sucker for vampire novels (pardon the pun). I love them, pure and simple. Some are clich? and try too hard, e.g. Mary Janice Davidson's “Undead” series. But some, like John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In, are so subtle and so horrifying that it makes me shiver with fear and delight. Lindqvist has given us a Robert Altman-esque vampire tale that takes place in a Stockholm ghetto. Oskar gets beat up by bullies and he lives next door to Eli. Eli lives with Hakan, who is a pedophile. Also in the building complex is a gang of glue sniffing teenagers, one of whose Mom is dating the cop who investigates the murders surrounding the story. Also, there is a sprinkling of local, middle-age alcoholics. One of whom Eli kills and whose body is found by kids in Oskar's class on a field trip. Don't worry; I haven't given it all away.
As far as 12-year old vampires go, Anne Rice set the standard with Claudia in Interview with a Vampire. The problem with making so young a creature is that they cannot possibly survive on their own. Interestingly, Lindqvist puts the care of his 12-year old vampire in the trembling, nervous hands of a pedophile. Hakan provides the appearance of a “father figure.” He also kills and drains the blood of his victims for Eli. Eli does not want to “infect” anyone else, so she avoids biting people. Thus Hakan satisfies his hunger for young men, and then brings buckets of blood home to Eli.
But this story really isn't about Eli. The main story is about Oskar, a wisp of a kid who gets beat up almost every day. Oskar still wets himself, he doesn't run for the bullies that torment him, he cowers before them because it's easier. The bullies make him squeal like a pig and whip him with tree branches. Oskar goes home and clips articles from newspapers about local murders, pastes them into a scrapbook and fantasizes about revenge. He shoplifts and takes a kitchen knife to a neighborhood tree, playing out his fantasy of killing the bullies. The bully goes home and clings to a stamp collection ? the only thing left behind from his long gone father. So which is more troubling, a kid openly lashing out because his father left, or the shy budding sociopath?
Oskar meets Eli at the ghost of a playground in their apartment complex. She is underdressed, wane and smells funny. Eli tells Oskar that they cannot be friends; she is not what she seems. Thus their forbidden love story begins. Oskar gives her a Rubik's cube and when he figures out that she lives right next-door, he copies out Morse code so they can talk through the common wall they share. Ahhh?awkward adolescent love, with a vampire.
It's obvious that Eli has forgotten to be young and her relationship with Oskar puts a strain on her life at home with Hakan. Hakan becomes jealous that Eli's affections are now elsewhere and he begins to put a price on his “dirty work” for her. The line blurs between what Hakan does for her and the pleasure he gets for himself. Of course it all goes horribly wrong. On the brink of being captured Hakan pours acid on his face so they won't be able to trace him back to Eli. Surprisingly enough Hakan lives through his disfigurement, Eli finds him and takes mercy on him. Before she can drain him of all his blood and kill him with her bare hands so he doesn't become infected, she is interrupted and must flee. It is then that the true monster of Lindqvist's tale comes to life. And I was terrified.
Some would say that the side stories in the novel, the glue-sniffing teenagers, the cop, the Mom, the weird old guy with the cats, the other generic local alcoholics distract for the true story of Oskar and Eli. But it's the branches of the tree that produce the fruit, not the trunk. Oskar and Eli's fate was written long before the novel began. You know what's going to happen to them. But the others in the book, what of their fate? It all matters. It's all connected. Don't skim past it. Lindqvist doesn't waste characters. Even the chapter written from the perspective of a squirrel has value. There is more to this book that just a love story. Thankfully, Lindqvist doesn't bog his story down with the slow seduction of biting someone on the neck. Instead he horrifies you with the human condition; the real monsters that possibly live just a few feet away.