What happens when the dead return without an insatiable thirst for blood and mayhem? This is the premise of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead (2005). Like his blockbuster vampire novel, Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead twists the traditional zombie tale, this time to explore the return of the dead in the context of grief, spirituality, politics, and humanity’s universal fear of the unknown.
Lindqvist’s novel takes place in Sweden where an extreme heat wave has gripped the country, leaving everyone with a blinding headache and electrical appliances on the fritz. Just as the pain reaches unmanageable levels, it disappears and the heat wave begins to abate. Unfortunately, the incident leaves something impossible in its wake—all those newly deceased within the last two months begin to rise in the hospital, in the morgue, and in the grave.
The novel follows several key characters that must come to grips with the “reliving,” as they are dubbed by the Swedish government. David loses his wife Eva in a car accident the day of the resurrection and must work through his grief in the face of her reanimation; Gustav Mahler, wracked with guilt over his grandson’s tragic death, digs Elias out of the earth and along with his daughter Anna tries to restore the mummified child to health; Elvy struggles with the return of her husband, recently passed after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and her spiritual conviction that this is the Second Coming, while her granddaughter Flora hopes the return of the dead will signal a change in the middle-class society she has come to hate.
For each of these characters, the theme is one of disappointment. David is unable to reconnect with his wife, now just a shell of the woman she once was; Gustav’s efforts to bring Elias back end in failure; Elvy’s religious fervour turns out to be misplaced; and Flora watches the world around her continue as usual in a stubborn refusal to recognize the return of the dead as anything more than a sensational news story and a problem to be corrected as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, Lindqvist offers a particularly scathing view of modern society in its “handling” of the undead. The reliving are gathered up and isolated from friends and family under the guise of an investigation into possible contagion. Legal experts debate whether the undead have any rights, while scientists explore the merits of conducting experiments on the reliving to find a “cure” for death. When they are finally deemed to be harmless but become unmanageable due to a telepathic phenomenon—living humans around the undead begin to pick up one another’s thoughts— the reliving are moved out to an abandoned apartment compound that is quickly transformed into a kind of concentration camp guarded by the military. Sweden breathes a collective sigh of relief as the problem is contained.
Eventually, the distraught family members of the undead are allowed to visit the compound with disastrous results. The undead pick up and respond to the horror reflected in their loved one’s thoughts and lash out violently. The compound is evacuated of the living, but the zombies—now transformed into the murderous walking dead we know from stories and film—later crash the gates and escape into the outside world.
While Lindqvist finally reveals the reason for the rising dead (a cosmic mistake that results in the souls of the dead returning) the novel’s conclusion is uncertain. The dead are on the loose and will presumably be gathered up and destroyed, but will society learn from the experience? Lindqvist seems to suggest that there will be no change. Society itself has become a kind of zombie, concerned only for its own survival and numb to the wonder of such a momentous event as the rising of the dead.
Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist is published in paperback in the US by Thomas Dunne Books (2011), ISBN 978-0-312-60452-3.
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