Let the Right One In
Oct 23, 2016
Let the Right One In
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Summary: A modern vampire story, and probably the most unique take on the genre in recent memory.
I have a joke about Scandinavian fiction in the 21st century – every person in Scandinavian fiction has apparently committed a horrific sex crime, been the victim of a horrific sex crime, or is currently investigating a horrific sex crime. All three circles of this Venn diagram overlap. Let the Right One In doesn’t break from this tradition of Scandinavian literature, but it adds a vampire.
And what a vampire! Eli is the best literary vampire in a long time. They’re not classically beautiful; they’re androgynous and smells like a slaughterhouse mixed with a morgue where the refrigeration failed. They’re a predatory murderer, but they’re also hopelessly innocent. They’re superhumanly strong, but they need to be protected. And, in keeping with the rules of 21st century Scandinavian fiction, they are actually a young boy who was made a eunuch when made into a vampire. Eli doesn’t seem to identify as male or female, though they prefer female clothes. They have to follow all the rules of classical vampires – most importantly, that they can’t enter a house without being invited in.
Unlike many modern vampires, there’s no parallel between sex and feeding with Eli. Eli eats to live, but really desires a friend more than anything. That friend is found in Oskar, a bullied twelve-year old boy who is Eli’s neighbor. Eli lives with Håkan, a former teacher and known pedophile. Oskar’s mother is doting and loving to her son, but his bullies are genuinely sadistic and make Oskar’s life hellish to the point that he fantasizes about killing them and collects news clippings about murders.
Yes, this story is really, really dark.
But it’s also very deeply hopeful.
The core of the story is about letting people in both literally and metaphorically; Eli has willingly allowed Håkan into their life, because Eli believes he can be manipulated easily. The partnership is unfulfilling for both, and is becoming increasingly filled with threats of violence on Håkan’s side – he is not the “right one”. Oskar hasn’t willingly let anyone into his life, but the bullies have forced their way in. When Eli and Oskar choose to trust each other, it begins a genuine friendship. When Håkan says they can’t play together anymore, they communicate through their bedroom walls by tapping in Morse code. Despite being a vampire, Eli refuses to do anything that might harm Oskar, and encourages him to stand up to his bullies. On the other side, Oskar shows Eli a chance at compassion and friendship, rather than the sadism of Eli’s creator and the abusive control of Håkan.
Which, to be clear, doesn’t make any part of this end up being less creepy. It just becomes a creepy friendship – when Oskar learns that Eli is a vampire, Eli points out their similarly bloodthirsty natures as Eli must kill, and Oskar wants to kill. Later, Oskar saves Eli from the town drunk who has begun hunting for the killer in town, allowing Eli to feed on the drunk, and Eli defends Oskar from his bullies.
So, this is a love story, really, between two hopelessly broken people. It’s Moonstruck with vampires, pedophilia, and a body count. The artistry comes in how Lindqvist creates sympathy for Eli and Oskar, and then pushes the boundaries of that affection. As is often the case, the monster is less horrifying than the humans around it, but it’s not because Eli isn’t a genuine monster, and Lindqvist makes the reader complicit in Eli’s and Oskar’s actions. Eli may be a better person than Håkan (for certain definitions of “better”), but she relishes killing. Oskar may not be a bully, but he shows all the signs of being a serial killer. As the reader gets warm fuzzies over their burgeoning, innocent relationship, it’s with the subtext that they are innocent only by comparison to their surroundings.
Lindqvist takes all the tropes of the vampire story and remixes them – there is romance, but no sex. The vampire is attractive, but not in a typical way, and is not binary in gender. Moreover, the vampire smells like a corpse. The hero is not dashing; he’s a child and the victim of bullies, and fantasizes about committing brutal murders. However, you root for Eli and Oskar, and can’t help but smile at their Morse-code-through-the-wall conversations and total devotion to each other. In fact, as my copy is in storage still after moving, I’m heading downstairs right now to check it out and reread.