Book Review: Let Me In

Title:  Let Me In

Author:  John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated by Ebba Segerberg

Genres:  Horror, Supernatural, (Romance)

Trigger Warnings:  Pedophilia, gore, near on-screen rape, and animal violence

Rating:  9 / 10

Summary:  In Blackeberg, Sweden we follow 12 year old Oskar, a reclusive boy who is regularly teased, bullied and terrorized by his classmates. Oskar is a bit of an odd boy, one who works as an advertisement distributor, who shoplifts to relieve his stress, and who is fascinated with serial killers, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper clippings featuring them. When it looks as though one such killer has arrived very close to home, Oskar begins to wonder if it really is a local nut job, or it’s some sort of supernatural retribution against the boys who have been tormenting him. He’s soon distracted, however, by the discovery of a new neighbor girl, Eli, who doesn’t go to school and only seems to come out of her apartment at night in clothes that are far too thin for the winter. As the two grow closer and more bodies pile up around them, Oskar comes to realize just what is going on and what his new friend really is.

Review:  I can’t remember exactly how I heard about this story, but I do remember that I had heard about the Swedish film adaptation first. I still haven’t seen it, but fully intend to now that I’ve read the book. (There are two film adaptations, Let the Right One In, which is the Swedish version, and Let Me In, which is an American remake.)

Vampires have always been a personal favorite of mine in the cast of classical horror creatures. Nosferatu, Dracula, Carmilla and Lestat, not to mention the bloodsucking antics to be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these fiends have just always had a special place in my horror loving heart. As with the oversaturation found in the ‘zombie genre,’ though, vampire fiction has been running into an issue with either the same old stories being retold in uninventive ways or kind of new stories being told in incredibly stupid ways. When I found this and it came with praise along the lines of ‘the best vampire story I’ve seen/read in years’ I was a little skeptical, but hopeful.

I’m here to add my voice to that praise. Let Me In is an incredible read. It is modern, bleak and complex. At the beginning I was reminded quite heavily of Red Dragon in pace, voice and general tone, and absolutely loved it.

As we follow Oskar through his days, and skip from his POV to that of others, we’re shown that this kid’s reality is harsh and full to the brim with thieves, drug users, violence and corruption. It almost seems over the top, but then we are reminded of his immediate surroundings and it seems to fit. Blackeberg is given almost as much character as any of our human or human looking ones; in fact there’s a three page description of the place given before we enter the story proper. If it seems like that’s a mark against the book, it’s really not.

The voice throughout the book is lyrical in its own way, spinning a tale that’s just as pretty in the way it’s told as it is sometimes repulsive in what it’s actually telling us.

For the most part we do follow Oskar, and it is his story that takes up the central focus, though Eli ends up taking almost as much of that by the end of the book. But we also follow plenty of other people around the town, including a group of older drunken friends, a neighbor boy who huffs glue and sells shoplifted goods, that boy’s soon to be stepfather who is a cop investigating the recent murders, and Eli’s ‘guardian.’ All of these people’s stories interconnect with each other and affect one another, and my one minor complaint is that sometimes it can get a little confusing just who is who, and sometimes I go t a little impatient wanting to get back to Oskar and what was going on with him and Eli.

When Oskar first meets Eli it’s at the little playground at their apartment complex, and it’s very late at night. In Sweden and in winter, she’s only wearing a thin sweater, and her behavior seems off to him. Despite that, he goes out of his way to see her again and to share his interests with her, starting with a Rubik’s Cube. Watching the relationship slowly develop between the two of them is adorable and a little painful, as it’s obvious to us at least that Eli is a vampire. The serial killer is Eli’s ‘guardian,’ a mentally disturbed pedophile who kills to keep Eli happy and in his company. How he’s repaid for keeping Eli in blood probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but know that it’s there, but never explicitly.

As with the majority of vampire tales where the vampire settles into one place for more than a week, past kills begin to catch up with Eli and Håkan – Eli’s guardian – and the façade they’ve erected begins to fall apart as they try to hold everything together. Eli has to hunt for herself and is seen, setting the local drunks on her trail, as well as the local police when the body is discovered. Later a victim gets away from her before she can kill her, and begins the transformation into a vampire, as vampirism in this book is a kind of virus and is passed along like one. Håkan messes up one of his own kills and is caught, but not before dousing himself in acid in attempt to simultaneously kill himself and erase his identity. While all this is happening, Oskar and Eli are growing ever closer, sharing puzzles and communicating through the joining wall between their apartments. Oskar even goes so far as to ask Eli to be his girlfriend. While Eli seems uncomfortable with the idea at first, she accepts, and occasionally sneaks into Oskar’s room to bed down with him, innocent spooning style.

As we approach the end, all of the different story threads tighten around each other, bringing everything to a head, and revelations abound every which direction. There are one or two plot twists that I won’t give away, especially to do with Eli’s character, but I thought they were all interesting, well thought out, and one in particular actually really startling, giving another layer of melancholy to Eli and her relationship with Oskar. How the story ends is just a touch open ended, leaving enough wiggle room for interpretation, but not so much that it feels unfinished.

Conclusions:  I really, really enjoyed this book, and will be looking into more by Lindqvist, who has written a zombie novel that looks interesting and several others I haven’t had a chance to look into. He also has a collection of short stories published that includes a follow up to Let Me In, which I definitely will be picking up to see how Oskar and Eli are doing.

As I said, I’ve read and watched a lot of vampire fiction over the years, and this felt pretty damn fresh to me. Not completely new, of course, that would be almost impossible. There are the predictable tropes to be found in a vampire story: the lonely vampire, befriending a human they refuse to eat, the veneer of humanity slowly crumbling away to reveal the truth beneath, having to choose between the newfound friend and survival and so forth. Unlike many other vampire telling that I’ve read, though, Let Me In isn’t just hitting those notes and moving on to the next. It takes its time and makes an emotional impact with each one, so it’s not just a stop in the road of a stereotypical vampire story. There’s enough variety in the points of view that we’re given to keep the story from becoming monotonous and fleshes out the world in a completely believable way, making the final impact of the piece much more effective than some others.

And one of my major concerns, having to do with centering around two children, one of them an immortal, never came to fruition. It’s easy to go over the top in such cases, and ramp up the melodrama to eleven, but here it never really happened. I think a good portion of that can be attributed to the fact that Lindqvist never tried to present either Oskar or Eli as children the way many others do. Yes, they are, or at least Oskar is, and his life is full of a child’s concerns, such as seeing his father, his grades, the bullies at school, etc., but his life is also full of very adult concerns and considerations. He’s never dumbed down or roped off from the more adult thoughts by his author simply because of his age. Oskar is growing up in a place and time where he’s had to grow quickly and it shows, while at the same time he’s not completely shaken off his youth. Lindqvist strikes a good balance with Oskar, making him a mature child, rather than a ‘child’ cardboard cutout or a full grown adult in a child’s body. In a similar way, but still different considering her character, the same can be said of Eli, who has been ‘alive’ for over two hundred years and so has all that experience, but is still trapped as a child.

If you’re into vampire stories and want something that feels like it’s actually rooted in reality in modern times, and presents a touching relationship between a vampire and human, I highly recommend this. Even if you’re not fussed about the relationship part, I still recommend it. All of the characterizations are great, the prose is very good and occasionally brilliant, and there are one or two interesting takes on vampire lore throughout.

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