Little StarBy John Ajvide Lindkvist (Thomas Dunne Books; 2012)

This is horror fiction as it should be: unashamedly dark, challenging and compelling. I feel it’s the finest novel to date by Sweden’s John Ajvide Lindqvist, of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, HANDLING THE UNDEAD and HARBOR fame. At 531 pages LITTLE STAR is the longest of Lindqvist’s novels, yet it never feels padded or bloated in the slightest. It’s a compulsive read, in fact, with a core of unrelenting darkness you don’t usually find in thick bestseller-type books like this one.

It begins with the aging singer Lennart discovering an infant girl left for dead in a forest. It becomes immediately apparent that the girl possesses a near-angelic singing voice, which impresses Lennart mightily. He and his wife decide to surreptitiously raise the girl, who they christen Theres, away from the eyes of authorities (Swedish adoption laws being apparently quite strict). This has the effect of further stunting the girl’s already damaged psyche, and at age 12 she commits a profoundly horrific act of violence–the first of several, as it turns out.

Theres ends up in the care of her older brother Jerry, who exploits her singing talents in a most unexpected manner: he enters her in the Swedish equivalent of AMERICAN IDOL. Among the viewers of the program is 12-year-old Theresa, a borderline sociopath who feels an immediate kinship with Theres. The two meet via Twitter, and form a disturbing bond that can only lead to bad things, especially when a pedophile music promoter enters the picture and Theres uses Twitter to gather together a mini-gang of pubescent adherents. All these elements play a role in the profoundly bleak and nasty finale, which forcibly demonstrates just how fearless Lindqvist is in following his material to its darkest extremes.

What ultimately makes the events of the final pages so horrifying is how true to life they feel (especially in light of some recent tragedies that occurred after this book’s initial 2010 Swedish publication). The same can be said of the narrative overall, which never plays it safe (there’s no police inquest or romance to leaven the horror) and is never less than entirely convincing in its rendering of the existence of teen girls whose existence is defined by reality TV and social media. In this manner it’s one of the few truly modern horror tales. Yet like all successful novels LITTLE STAR works ultimately because it tells a damn good story, and does so in consistently absorbing and surprising fashion.