Sunday, July 5, 2015

Under the Sea

Harbor [Manniskohamn] by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2008/Translated Marlaine Delargy 2010): On the fictional island of Domaro in the Stockholm archipelago, strange things have been happening for centuries. And all of those things have some relation to the sea that surrounds the island.

John Ajvide Lindqvist became an "overnight sensation" when the Swedish film adaptation of his terrific 2004 coming-of-age/vampire novel Let the Right One In appeared late in 2008, right around the same time as this novel appeared in Sweden. And the hype was well-deserved: Let the Right One In is a bold and inventive vampire novel that became a bold and inventive Swedish movie (and, later, a so-so American movie). 

The comparisons to Stephen King came thick and fast and just kept coming, though I think Lindqvist resembles other English-language horror writers as much if not moreso. Some of the supernatural creatures in Harbor remind me of the idiosyncratic magical beings and events in Clive Barker works, most notably The Great and Secret Show. The calculated, Sublime vagueness of the climax of the novel, in which things are explained but not to the extent that one is entirely certain what happened, made me think of similar endings in Ramsey Campbell novels that include Midnight Sun and The Long Lost

I realize that the King comparisons occur because a lot of mainstream reviewers have little or no experience reading horror -- King may be their only touchstone for what Lindqvist does. It's annoying, but there it is. Ignorance of a particular literary genre has never stopped a mainstream reviewer from generalizing ponderously about that same genre.

But Lindqvist is his own writer, not simply  a synthesizer of influences. Harbor isn't a great novel of horror and dark fantasy, but it kept me reading to the end of its not-inconsiderable length. That everything is constructed on the Not Without My Daughter template makes the successes of the novel even more remarkable. It even manages to make a fairly late-in-the-text revelation of False Memory Syndrome (yes, how 90's!) work dramatically, if not entirely convincingly.

In the present day of Harbor (the mid-2000's), we follow Anders, the alcoholic father whose daughter Maja disappeared without a trace near Domaro two years earlier. We also follow Anders' grandmother and her lover of 40 years, Simon, a retired magician/illusionist, both of whom live on the island. Anders' father, a deceased herring fisherman, was also born on Domaro; his mother having divorced his father and gone to live in Stockholm soon after Anders was born, Anders himself is a man of two worlds, having spent portions of every vacation on Domaro with his father. The novel stresses the liminal nature of both Anders and Simon throughout, their status as Men of Two Worlds. Make of that what you will.

Two years prior to the main narrative, Anders, his wife Cecilia, and Maja were visiting Domaro from their home in Sweden, as they often did. Maja vanished during a visit to the nearby lighthouse, leaving no clue as to her whereabouts in the snow and ice. Anders fell apart and Cecilia eventually left him. With nowhere else to go, Anders returns to Domaro to live in the house his immediate family was using as a vacation home when on Domaro, the warped structure known as The Shack. It's close to the homes of both Simon and Anders' grandmother, who have been lovers for decades but choose to live apart.

Both Anders and Simon (who wasn't born on the island and is thus considered a tourist by the residents despite his own decades-long residency) gradually begin to re-investigate Maja's disappearance. Strange things have begun to happen: the body of a year-lost resident washes up one day, dead for only 24 hours or less. People aren't acting like themselves. Anders is having nightmares about his daughter. And Simon has begun to assemble a hidden narrative from a number of odd incidents over the years involving disappearances, deaths, storms, and strange creatures.

The stories about Domaro's past are the most interesting things in Harbor, mixing documentary-style exposition with confabulation and myth and anecdote in an effective way. The present day has its problems, although I (unlike a lot of reviewers) don't think the self-pitying Anders is one of them. Instead, Simon is the weakest part of the narrative. He's a magician who does stage one important escape act on Domaro several decades before the main narrative. And he does think about the crippled current state of his limbs and joints a lot. 

But he's also got a thing in a matchbox, introduced early in Harbor, which ends up being an underdeveloped key to the resolution of the story. It's there, and if anything in the text requires a lot more exposition, it's the thing in the matchbox. Several times, it acts as an almost-literal Deus ex Machina, never moreso than during the climax. What is it, and what is the antagonist? Well, while I appreciate Lindqvist's desire to avoid the pitfalls of too much horror-draining exposition about the meanings and origins of things, he goes too far the other way. The climax raises more questions than it answers, leading to a certain amount of readerly frustration at the end of 500 pages.

The Smiths are to Lindqvist as Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were to a young Stephen King. One of the novel's initially charming oddities lies with two characters who speak almost entirely in Smiths lyrics. This works both amusingly and poignantly for much of the novel, though by the time someone has said "Please, please, please" for the second or third time, the welcome has been worn out and the horror replaced by irritation. Strangeways, here we come, indeed.

Overall, Harbor is flawed but enjoyable, rewarding but occasionally frustrating. Like Stephen King, Lindqvist has a real talent for normative characterization in the midst of abnormal events, though I do think many reviewers overstate his status as "Sweden's Stephen King." There are a lot of other influences, and, at least this (relatively) early in the career of Lindqvist, he shows a greater interest in supernatural elements that are more personal, idiosyncratic, and self-created than what one saw in King's work prior to It, which appeared about 20 years into King's writing career. Here, we're less than a decade into Lindqvist's. Recommended.

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