Desperate Need Crawls From the Grave in 'Handling the Undead'

Lindqvist has done for zombies what he did for vampires: transforming them into symbols of loss, yearning and the fragility of human connection.

Handling the Undead

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Length: 384 pages
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-09

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.