What if the dead came back? This has been the guiding conceit of stories of ghosts and revenants for millennia. Indeed, its an idea that has guided more than a few religious narratives, opening for us as it does the perennial questions about the loss of those we love and the loss of our selves.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead examines this question while also becoming a reflection on the precarious nature of humanity in our postmodern context. Consider what might have happened in The Monkeys Paw if there had not been any wishes left. Now consider what happened if not one rotting loved one returned, but thousands of them.
Lindqvist has written a zombie novel that creatively eschews some of the basic characteristics of the genre. His undead are barely animated, truly behaving as a living corpse might. Moreover, they have almost no aggressive instincts and no taste for human beings, At least not exactly. Without giving too much away, a major plot point hinges on the way the living affect the dead, allowing the author to shape his story into a parable about yearning and the nature of loss.
Handling the Undead does not present the conceit of the zombie apocalypse allowing for something new in the much-turned grave dirt of the zombie genre. Lindqvist does not tell a story of the dead returning en masse. Instead, a peculiar climatic/electrical event around Stockholm, Sweden brings back a few thousand dead and no more. The question, of course, becomes how both the families of the “reliving” (as they are called) and the civil authorities are to deal with this resurrection of the recently departed. How should they “handle” the undead?
Lindqvist has already proven to have a map for this dark territory. His 2007 novel Let Me In (that became the critically acclaimed film Let The Right One In) used the vampire genre to explore not only questions of death, dying and loss but to analyze the nature of love, commitment and friendship in a modern urban context of extreme alienation. Here he once again shows all the myriad possibilities of the horror genre, offering dread as an embodiment of more complex, less easily understood, emotions.
Lindqvist’s ability to create a believable version of our world combined with his sparse, stark style is the perfect narrative vehicle for this story. Handling the Undead takes place in world where everyone is aware of zombies and their pop culture mythology, where the granddaughter of one of the “reliving” plays the zombie-killing Resident Evil video game franchise. The novel even deals believably with the more practical aspects of “handling” decaying loved ones. Put simply, these zombies need a bath and some skin lotion, quotidian elements of the book that never become humorous except in the darkest sense.
Along with introducing the occasional news report that lets us know how the world is responding to the undead crisis, Lindqvist chooses to tell his story through the lives of three families. A husband loses a wife who is his primary connection to the world. She returns as one of the only zombies who can utter a few words. An elderly woman watches her good-natured but plodding husband return, a man she had loved and cared for in his final illness but who she has little desire to see again. She sublimates her feelings in religious belief that this occurrence is a sign of impending apocalypse.
Certainly the most wrenching of these narrative threads has to do with what happens when the very young grandson of a hard-bitten journalist returns from death, creating both horror and wonder for the old man. His troubled daughter, on the other hand, responds quit differently and the fate of the undead becomes a metonym of their troubled relationship. This allows Lindqvist to explore how love of one person can become a conduit for our connection to other people, for good and for dire ill. The central plot soon becomes a way for Lindqvist to fully examine this idea.
Stories of monsters have been, throughout human history, stories of the mysterious and malicious Other. In western culture, the monsters of narratives from Beowulf to Dracula have been presented as threats to human life and the social order.
Lindqvist is giving us new kinds of monsters. While its not new to see creatures of the night as sympathetic (think 20th century film’s iterations of Frankenstein and almost every new incarnation of the vampire since Anne Rice), Lindqvist (a former professional magician) has created monsters that are deeply human with all the savagery and/or sadness that that implies.
Most writers on the zombie genre make the case that we are currently fascinated with these flesh-munchers because they are metaphors for ourselves. Extreme representations of our own unhealthy appetites and obsessions, they are almost the perfect monsters for social satire.
Lindqvist has gone further by creating a parable in which the undead mirror our existence in relation to others, the way in which we move through the world sometimes as placeholders and sometimes as essential lifelines for the people in our lives. His zombies are us in their tendency to become symbols for other people, embodying in ghastly ways how much we can love another, how much we fear one another and how desperately we need one another.