Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
(trans. by Ebba Sederberg)
‘Hakan lay down in the leaves, close to the dead man, pressed his forehead against the ice-cold stone. Why? Why do this … with the head? The risk of infection. You could not allow it to reach the nervous system. The body had to be turned off.’
Twelve-year-old Oskar lives with his divorced mother in a suburb of Stockholm. He is a loner, bullied mercilessly at school, and takes his anger and frustration out in murderous fantasies. One night, he meets Eli, a girl about his own age.
Eli is a loner too. They only meet at night. The windows of her flat are all boarded up. At times, her face is wrinkled and her hair has grey streaks. She smells bad. At other times, she seems a normal, healthy child. In spite of her oddities, Oskar finds love for the first time. Eli persuades Oskar to retaliate against the bullies, and he eventually does, with nasty consequences.
‘Eli took a step towards the cat and it bared its teeth, hissing. The body was tensed for attack. One more step. The cat retreated, pulling backward while continuing to hiss … hate pulsating through its body …’
But Eli is a vampire, depending for her ‘meals’ on Hakan, her pseudo father/guardian. Hakan too loves Eli, but he revolts at what he has to do and starts making mistakes. Eli does what she has to do to stay alive and, to protect her, Hakan hides the corpse and pours acid over his own face to hide his identity. When he doesn’t come home, Eli attacks Virginia, a local woman, but is interrupted as she begins to feed. Virginia begins to ‘change’.
Now hospitalised, Hakan begs Eli to feed on him and to end his life. However, things don’t quite work out as intended. Hakan too ‘changes’ (becomes infected).
‘… what really made him shiver was when he thought about the ‘Can I come in? Say that I can come in.’ That she had needed an invitation … And he had invited her. A vampire.’
Meantime, the relationship between Oskar and Eli develops into something more than friendship. In trying to understand what she is, and how she has become a vampire, he is torn between horror at her nocturnal activities and his desire to be near her.
‘The skin in Eli’s face started to flush, became pink, red, wine-red and her hands tightened into fists as the pores in her face opened and tiny pearls of blood started to appear in dots all over her face.’
Marketed as a horror story, Let the Right One In, is a certainly dark tale. Vampires in literature have historically been portrayed as adults, and as monsters of one sort or another; think Dracula, Nosferatu and Lord Ruthven. In late twentieth century developments, writers began experimenting with the genre, creating ‘good’ vampires, romantic vampires and even inventing a history of their origins. Lindqvist’s vampire is different. Conceived in her new life by the intertwining of poverty and vile sexual abuse, she is a figure of pathos. Whilst revolted – like Oskar – at her way of life, we want to excuse it. We want her to survive, to come to an understanding with the world. (Perhaps understanding for Eli is too much to ask?)
There is much less conventional horror in the Oskar-Eli story than one might expect. The true horror of Let the Right One In comes in its depiction of the dark side of our society, where drunkenness, debauchery, drug addiction, paedophilia, sexual abuse and bullying are frequently hidden behind the curtain of respectability.
Let the Right One In is a class novel and deserves to become a classic in the Dracula mould.
[Footnote: many of the social vices depicted in the novel are missing from both the Swedish movie and the later American version. However, I was interested to learn that Lindqvist approved, and complimented the makers of both. I agree they are excellent films but one really ought to read the book too.]