There’s something about sludge that is truly awful. It’s thick, dark, slow-moving, made up of who knows what. And in the fiction of bestselling Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, it embodies horror.
Readers may be familiar with Lindqvist’s previous novels in English, including Let the Right One In (2004) and the books in the Platserna (Places) series (which I reviewed a few years ago for Strange Horizons), and thus would find The Kindness in keeping with the crescendo of psychological horror that is the author’s brand. And yet, The Kindness is in some ways less violent and visceral than the previous novels, despite its shootings, rapes, stabbings—and the unimaginable abomination that spills out of the mysterious shipping container dropped at the edge of the unassuming Swedish town of Norrtälje.
One of the things that Lindqvist is particularly adept at is effortlessly situating the Anglophone reader in a Swedish setting like Norrtälje. One doesn’t have to know much at all about Swedish culture or history to feel like they’ve either lived in or visited a place like Norrtälje at some point in their lives. Without realizing it, the reader begins to internalize the various subtle references to Swedish music and literature, until the entire setting feels familiar. That’s just one of the many ways in which Lindqvist, a former magician, transports us into his worlds, until we’ve read two hundred pages and haven’t even realized that time has passed.
The Kindness is quite long—eight hundred pages—but Lindqvist needs that time to slowly build up the horror that threatens to completely engulf Norrtälje. His main characters—Max, Johan, Marko, Maria, Anna, and Siw—have all arrived at that point in their thirties at which they’re wondering exactly where their lives are heading. Childhood friends Max, Johan, and Marko (who immigrated with his parents and sister Maria from war-torn Serbia) have taken different paths since they left high school, spurred on by trauma and bitterness. Anna and Siw, who meet the other group during a Pokémon Go meet-up at a local park, are still hoping to find fulfilling relationships and have nearly given up looking for partners, transferring their focus to working out and dieting.
Max and Siw, though, are also different from the others: they have an ability to see into the future, which Max calls his “visions,” and Siw experiences as “hearings.” As Siw learns from her grandmother, all of the women in her family are sibyls who have this gift. And yet, often this glimpse into the future is just that—a glimpse, with Siw frequently unable to do anything to stop what she sees from happening. Once she and Max realize that they both have this ability, they are able to stop a couple of potentially deadly incidents, but the larger horror that is engulfing Norrtälje calls for more extreme measures.
When that mysterious shipping container winds up on Norrtälje’s shore, the dysfunctional town council can’t figure out who owns the land on which it’s resting, so the container remains sealed for another week. At one point, Lindqvist’s narrator evokes the utter strangeness of the object when he notes that the residents who come to see the container are “moving around it like the apes circling the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey” (p. 109)—a brilliantly universal reference to human confrontation with the unknown.
The first person who spots the container claims that he hears something moving inside, but by the time it’s opened, the mostly Afghan refugees who were hidden inside are all dead, either from violence or asphyxiation. Along with the bodies that emerge from the container is a strange sludge (reminiscent of the sludge from I Always Find You ) that finds its way into the river. Whatever inhabits this sludge then takes up residence in the water and wreaks havoc on the town.
Lindqvist patiently builds up the inexorable psychological change in the town’s residents that occurs alongside this by inserting a few sentences at the end of some of the chapters focusing on a typical random interaction. For the first third of the novel, we read about such things as a woman helping an immigrant at a bus stop, a group of people helping a beached seal get back into the water, and a man visiting a stranger at a nursing home. Slowly, slowly, these interactions shift, until a dropped phone is allowed to fall through a crack in a bridge, a misunderstanding escalates into a fight, and a young girl’s hopeful thoughts turn dark for no apparent reason. Eventually, fights break out all over Norrtälje between residents, with racial tensions rising and old traumas surfacing. Suicides are on the rise and basic kindness has been replaced with a malevolence that even those expressing it can’t explain. And it’s all much worse when they’re near the river, where “the horror” lives. It takes four generations of Siw’s family and help from her friends to confront it.
Lindqvist constructs this complex narrative structure with the building blocks of current events (the refugee crisis, weapons trafficking) and the characters’ deep interest in video games, Pokémon Go, and storytelling. Johan, a winking reference to the author himself, writes a novel about his childhood, but is too afraid to send it to a publisher, so his friend Anna does it for him. At one point, he references Lindqvist’s own Let the Right One In, a fun inside joke for those who know Lindqvist’s writing. Not all references are followed up: one disappointing thing for me was that the wind spirit who knows, early in the novel, that something is lurking in the water doesn’t return in the later pages.
That is a small quibble, though. As with Lindqvist’s previous novels in English, this one is brilliantly translated by the talented Marlaine Delargy, who makes us forget that this novel was originally written in a language other than English. Between Lindqvist and Delargy, we have, once again, a thoroughly engrossing, highly entertaining, well-written and -translated book that will satisfy both horror fans and those who don’t usually read horror (like myself). It’s well worth those eight hundred pages.