Another of my favorites was “Better You Believe,” by Carole Johnstone, a tightly written story of mountain climbers struggling to descend the south face of Annapurna. A blizzard hits and nature becomes the ruthless slayer that she is, picking off climbers one by one and sending them down into “the horror of all that silent blue dark.” While the story is about survival, it is also about female rivalry, the sacrifices we make for love and what it really means to come out on top. We know we are in big trouble when Sarah, the narrator, thinks: “Bad things are about to happen.” Bad things do happen. I won’t say what. You should read it and find out.
Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown is at the center of I AM BEHIND YOU (St. Martin’s, $28.99), the latest by the Swedish novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist. In this masterwork of speculative fiction, four families in a Swedish campground wake to find their caravans and cars have been relocated to an unknown location comprising a “vast expanse of grass, each blade just over three centimeters long.” There is no sun, no moon, no stars. The air is thick and heavy. There is no way to discern the direction they walk or their location on a GPS. Are they still in Sweden? Have they been taken by aliens to another planet? Fallen into another dimension? Nobody knows for sure why they have come there, or why they must hang around. They exist in an infinite field of unknowing.
As one might expect, throwing a group of people together under such conditions brings out the worst in them. They beat, shoot at, steal from and cheat one another. All the jealousy and anger pushed below the surface of their lives begins — when the pressure of their situation is applied — to ooze out over the landscape. It is a sad microcosm of society, you might say, one with all the predictable results.
But nothing is quite as predictable as it seems. We soon discover that there is a supernatural mechanism at work, a metaphysical machine that customizes life-changing visions for each person. A black tiger appears to Carina; a chalk-white creature with a “pure gaze” fills Isabelle with sorrow and longing; the Bloodman appears to Donald, driving him mad; an old man appears to Stefan and his son. These characters have all experienced crisis-inducing visions earlier in their lives. But now, these apparitions push them to understand something essential and life-altering about themselves. Such epiphanies render these unsavory characters much more interesting than they were at first glance. It is fun to watch them squirm. Their tendency toward violence, and their deplorable behavior, let me be vicariously violent and deplorable.
“I Am Behind You” is pre-eminently readable. The pacing and structure kept me turning the pages. And while I was intrigued by the premise, it was the sheer weirdness of the book, its insistence on subverting expectations at every turn, that made it so good. “I Am Behind You” is my favorite kind of novel — utterly unclassifiable. It resists genre. While it might be called horror, it is also a suspense novel, a fantasy novel and a character-driven exploration of the state of humanity in our time.
Lindqvist has been called the Stephen King of Sweden. I haven’t read his other books, and so I cannot make general claims, but this novel, with its descent into an alternate universe and its insistence that reality can shift onto a weird and metaphysical track, has more in common with Haruki Murakami. And like Murakami, Lindqvist has defined his own style and genre. It’s not horror. It’s Lindqvist.
In Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel DEVIL’S DAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), fear is generated not from being lost, but from going home. John Pentecost returns to the Endlands when his grandfather dies, bringing his pregnant wife, Kat. Unfortunately, the place is cursed. According to legend, the Devil arrived 100 years ago, disguised himself in a ewe’s fleece and infiltrated the land as “the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram’s gonads, the blood in the baby’s milk.” One feels the Devil everywhere, in the “blackness that unfolded in all directions.” The inhabitants of the Endlands dread the Devil’s return, and have instituted a yearly ritual called Devil’s Day to keep him at bay. But he is never far away. We feel him there, lurking, even as we discover that human treachery can keep pace with the Devil’s evil ways.