Spoilers to follow.
I often feel like we’ve done something unfair to the vampire. As strange monkey-beasts we like to explain things and are willing to go to great lengths to explain things that scare us. When you consider something like the Alien series, the first one is scary because you really don’t know what the alien is about, or why the pilot of the downed alien spacecraft even is carrying so many eggs around in the first place. Cut to several decades later and we’ve thoroughly killed the menace the aliens ever had. There are now something like six movies, including the awful Predator vs. Aliens ones, each more tedious than the last. There is a large expanded universe collected in cheap comics and shitty pulp novels that explains exactly what the aliens are, where their homeworld is, what the pilot was doing with them. In our desire to explain what we don’t understand, we’ve killed what made the creature cool in the first place.
Vampires are the same. We are told in movies like Blade that it’s the UV light in sunlight that damages vampires, and the heroes fearlessly trek through sewers brandishing UV flashlights. And we can blame I am Legend for being the first book to try to explain vampires away by means of a virus. In some movies, vampires are simply humans who are a little stronger than the average Joe and who have an unfortunate taste for blood. The worst movies and books are the ones who try to make vampires sympathetic, or worse sex objects.
I read the first book of the Twilight series in one sitting, not because I was that into it, but because it’s moronically simple. You can skip entire pages and not miss much. To put it the best way that I can, Twilight is basically a Harlequin Romance novel minus the sex and with slightly better prose. The vampires are portrayed as good guys, and while strong and fast, are not particularly impressive. I believe that Twilight is the logical culmination of the Pussification of Vampires and after reading the book I said to myself, “Well, they finally killed ‘em. Drove a stake right through their heart. The vampire is dead as a source of fear.”
And I was wrong.
The first time I heard about Let the Right One In, I was browsing through the local paper and saw in the Venue section a little piece. I don’t remember what it said exactly, but I imagine it was something like:
Let the Right One In
Based off the Swedish novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In combines the perfect claustrophobic atmosphere with human pathos to create…
What grabbed me was that it was based off a novel, I remember filing the information off in some corner of my brain, and went about my week with scarcely a change at all. Then a friend of mine saw the film and told me I had to see it. Like now. “Okay,” I told her, “but if this is just another stupid vampire flick I’m going to be pissed.”
Far from being a stupid vampire flick, it is probably the best vampire movie that will be released this decade. It’s that good.
Almost as soon as I was out of the theater I was thinking about acquiring the book. There are three translations of the book in English and I steered clear of the American one because the title had been changed from “Let the Right One In” to “Let Me In”. Wikipedia claims this is because the American publishers thought that the title was too long for American audiences. Since I didn’t want to give my money to people who think I’m stupid, I went with the British version and waited a very short time for it to arrive in the mail.
The book is novel sized and is mostly set in a small Swedish suburb and much like the movie revolves around the relationship the protagonist Oskar has with a strange girl named Eli who moves into his apartment complex.
In the beginning of the book, Oskar is being bullied by a gang of children, the leader of which has a brother who “sells all the drugs” in the city. Oskar is a wreck, he has urinary incontinence, is nervous, and is showing worrying signs of a serious sociological disorder in the works. He keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings each relating to a gruesome murder and he has a knife he likes to threaten trees with as if they’re his tormentors. The suggestion seems to be that eventually Oskar is going to snap.
You know how I was bitching up above about movies and books trying to make vampires sympathetic characters? Let the Right One In pulls it off and very well too. I think that the book pulls it off because while Eli is sympathetic, she is often seen doing terrible things.
Eli, whose gender is first related as female, but which gets more and more vague the further into the book you go, is not seen moving into the apartment building by Oskar or by anyone else (except their taxi driver who draws his own conclusions about his own involvement in the events that take place).
Eli first appears to Oskar in the playground. She is described as a having very large eyes and looking very young. Oskar is quick to note that she smells funny. He doesn’t discover she’s a vampire until much later, but the reader knows fairly quickly. We did just buy a vampire novel, and we expect it to have a vampire in it.
The book does not disappoint. Sympathetic or not, Eli is a monster. She eats people, after all.
She has an elderly guardian named Håkan who she regularly bullies to force him to get her blood. But Håkan is no less of a monster, as he is a pedophile whose main reason for hanging around is because he’s placed Eli in some sort of idealized fantasy as a child goddess. He often asks her to let him sleep with her, a plea she treats as carelessly as she does him.
The other characters followed in depth are a group of friends including Lacke, his lover Virginia, Jocke, and by proxy Gösta. Gösta is a recluse with too many cats (if he lived in my city, he’d be fined heavily). Jocke gets killed off fairly early. Eli snaps his head almost off of his body to “turn him off” after she has her fill (she doesn't want any other vampires running about). Unfortunately Gösta sees this from his balcony, but being a recluse is very unwilling to tell anybody about it until very late in the book.
Eli’s appearance in the town changes things. It seems that she just wants to be left alone, but because of her affliction simply cannot leave others alone. Oskar is the only one who benefits from her presences as he becomes more brave, less nervous, and is cured of his incontinence. However, Eli destroys Lacke’s circle of friends by killing one of them and she nearly kills Virginia too before Lacke intervenes. Not that his intervention helps Virginia. She becomes convinced the child she was attacked by has infected her somehow and she slowly becomes more obsessed with blood, eventually severely mutilating herself to get it. When her own doesn’t suffice, she goes out to get some from Gösta (a trip that lands her in the hospital).
Håkan ends up in the hospital too. Eli forces him to get more blood, and he is finally caught in the act but not before he burns his face off with hydrochloric acid. Eli comes to the hospital to finish him off, but isn’t able to get permission to enter his room because his vocal cords have been too badly damaged. This leads to him falling out of a very high window and he is presumably killed. It is not until later, that he appears wandering around the forests of the town attacking people.
In most vampire novels, Lacke would be the hero, as he finally puts two and two together and heads off to slay the vampire who killed his best friend and his lover, but this book is about Oskar and so it focuses on the bullies who trouble Oskar until he finally stands up to the leader and hurts the other boy fairly badly. The boy, being a miserable little shit, goes to his big drug dealing brother. The brother isn’t all that thrilled to help, but eventually is made very angry when his bullying little bastard brother burns a very important photo and claims Oskar did it. This leads to a final confrontation that is just about as awesome as it was in the movie, but that I won’t spoil.
The book ends much like the movie ends with Oskar going off on a train with Eli.
There are differences from the movie, as you’ve probably gathered from the above. Oskar’s “friend” Tommy has been cut out. Tommy is a 16 year old ne'er-do-well who lives in Oskar’s apartment complex. Another incident that is cut is a scene where Eli attacks an old woman with cancer after getting herself invited into the woman’s house. The most notable difference is Eli’s sex, an important aspect of the book that is downplayed in the movie. Early in the book she is female, but as she keeps telling Oskar “I’m not a girl”. Whether she means that she isn’t a girl or isn’t a human girl is left up to the reader until near the end. The book has a keen knowledge of vampire tropes and plays off of them well, leaving the reader with an unease sense of dread as events are triggered by Eli’s presence and quickly spiral out of even her control.
A good read if you want to see a vampire novel done well and are sick of all this Twilight bullshit. Highly recommended.