I like to be spooked. I’m really pretty cynical in reality—I’m an atheist, I’m not spiritual, and I don’t believe in ghosts. (The jury’s still out on aliens, but I don’t think they’re here, anyway.) But damn if I can’t leave all those feelings at the door when I’m watching a movie or reading a book, and scare myself silly waiting for monsters to jump out of my closet. I find demons and hauntings much more chilling than serial killers, maybe because I can properly disconnect from reality with them. I can happily squeal and turn the lights on halfway through movies and put books down and back slowly away from them. And so on. Which is why I like John Ajvide Lindqvist, who has so far written about vampires (Let the Right One In), zombies (Handling the Undead) and, now, with recent release Harbour, the chilling, supernatural power of the Swedish sea.
A young family—Anders, Cecilia and their daughter Maja—are on the Swedish island of Domarö for a winter holiday. They ski across the icebound snow to the lighthouse island of Gåvasten for a picnic. Thinking their daughter is safe with nothing but snow surrounding them, they let her out of their sight. And that is the last anyone sees of her.
Two years later, Anders returns to the island, bringing with him an alcohol addiction and, after the breakdown of his relationship, almost no hope. It is then that he realises some questions were never answered about Maja’s disappearance, and that other questions were never asked in the first place. And that perhaps the beautiful summer vacation island of Domarö is hiding an awful secret that threads through the community’s past and out into the sea itself.
Like just about everyone who saw it, I adored the Swedish film version of Let the Right One In, and it led me to read Lindqvist’s last novel, Handling the Undead. Harbour is a much better book. It follows the same desperation felt by an adult who loses a child that Handling had, where amongst other family stories a grandfather was desperate to hold onto the child who had just come back from the dead, but who was not in any way well (because he was, well, dead and underground for some time). But with Harbour, the isolation of the book’s setting was a great improvement. Instead of covering the lives of many and the dead people they are heartbroken to let go of, Harbour stays with Anders’ family and their inescapable history on Domarö.
Harbour is a haunting story, the kind that delivers genuine chills, immersion in the characters’ lives, and possibly a slight fear of the ocean. Seriously, don’t read this at the beach, unless you want to never go swimming again. (Team it with Jaws to really ruin your holiday.) The narrative dips into the past, a device that can sometimes make me angry that the plot is being deliberately forestalled, and ruin a novel’s flow but, in Harbour, it just pulls the reader deeper into the story and creates a full background for everything that happens.
And it is an exciting, unflinching, evocative story of how isolation can change the game plan. Like Stephen King on a good day, Lindqvist taps into the surreal but not to the point of the ridiculous; just enough to test your nerves. And win.
In summary: Above Expectations (because I didn’t really like Handling the Undead, even though I desperately wanted to.)