After his captivating debut with the vampire novel, Let the Right One In, I was eager to get my hands on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s next novel, despite generally not being drawn to the horror genre—least of all anything involving zombies. Yet Handling the Undead is not a generic zombie story; it’s an emotionally affecting and humanistic look at grief, loss, mortality and the relationships between parents and children.
The story talks place in Stockholm, Sweden, where strange occurrences are taking place. Electrical glitches, a massive heat wave and blinding headaches strike the entire population, and, in morgues and cemeteries, the dead start to reawaken. The first plotline involves stand-up comedian David, whose wife Eva is killed in a car accident and later reawakens in the hospital. The investigative reporter struggling to cover this phenomenon is Gustav Mahler, who has been grieving the loss of his grandson, Elias. The only people in Stockholm who foretold this whole occurrence is a pair of psychics: teenage Flora and her religious grandmother Elvy, who interprets the reawakening of the dead as a sign of the End of Days. Though these characters rarely interact outside their plot threads, their paths intersect in their attempts to survive and make sense of these supernatural circumstances.
The novel focuses not so much on the zombies themselves as on the living characters’ reactions to them, such as David struggling to explain his wife’s condition to his young son; Elvy’s self-appointed mission to spread the word of God as the End of Days draws near; and the government’s initial stalling to take action on the issue. In addition to David’s rapport with his son, the parent-child theme is especially prevalent in Mahler’s strained relationship with his grown daughter, Anna, and how they cope with the undead Elias. The psychic bond between Flora and Elvy also becomes crucial as they realize their purpose to herd the lost souls of the undead to their final resting place.
The marring aspect of this novel is its ending, which comes suddenly and doesn’t provide adequate closure; just a few hints as to how the whole zombie debacle will end, and how the characters will get on will their lives, having bid farewell to their loved ones for the final time. Readers will surely get the impression that their lives will continue after the book is finished, so this ending may be Lindqvist’s way of making the novel all the more memorable.
One could call Handling the Undead as the zombie novel for those who don’t usually read zombie novels. But there’s a chance that it could become a gateway zombie novel that sparks one’s interest in reading Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. In any case, it’s a moving and worthwhile read that further establishes Lindqvist’s status not only as a good horror writer but as a philosopher and humanist and well.