By John Ajvide Lindqvist (Thomas Dunne Books; 2005/09/10)
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m sick to death of zombie novels. I can however be persuaded to stick with such a book so long as it has an original take on the subject, which was the case with John Ajvide Lindqvist’s HANDLING THE UNDEAD.
Lindqvist is the Sweden based author of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, which begat the famous Swedish film of the same name (and its American remake LET ME IN). It’d be easy to say that HANDLING THE UNDEAD does for zombies what the former novel/film did for vampires, but this new book is a far more idiosyncratic work overall. If it resembles anything it’s the French film THEY CAME BACK, which took a stark, reality-based look at what occurs when the dead rise in a small town. The emphasis was on the reaction of the still-living citizens to the walking dead in their midst, and that’s also the case here.
The setting is Stockholm during a sweltering heat wave, where some unexplained supernatural occurrence causes the electrical appliances to go haywire. For the mild mannered protagonist David this also marks the unexpected death of his wife in a car accident. Yet upon reaching the hospital to identify the body something even stranger occurs: David and everyone else in the area suffer an awful headache…and then his deceased wife unexpectedly returns to life.
Other characters caught in the melee are Gustav, a writer attempting to adjust to the death of his young son, and Flora, a psychic woman whose grandmother has passed. Luckily these deaths have occurred recently, as only people who’ve been dead two months or less come back–which is indeed what occurs in both cases, with all manner of darkly comedic complications.
Before long the military is digging up graves and fencing off cemeteries. Swedish authorities eventually take the drastic step of quarantining the zombies, which throws the lives of everyone into turmoil, and leads to an intense George Romero-esque climax.
Outside that climax there’s little in the way of the type of flesh eating, intestine pulling insanity of most zombie thrillers. Lindqvist’s interest is in how his characters deal with death, certainly a concept with universal significance. That doesn’t mean the novel isn’t idiosyncratic in the extreme, alternating straightforward storytelling–albeit with a love of quirky detail–with interviews and chronological recountings of the zombie outbreak. HANDLING THE UNDEAD may not quite be a classic of the zombie genre, but it’s definitely a unique standout.