John Ajvide Lindqvist's "Handling the Undead" gets off to a great start with a very compelling premise--what if the recently dead came back to life and didn't want to eat you--but doesn't quite deliver all the way through.
Oddly, this set up is even more horrifying than the conventional zombie story. Rather than flesh-eating, the undead here are soul-eating. As they attempt to return to their homes and mill about with minimal brain activity, Lindqvist's zombies force their loved ones to wrestle with what to do with them. Do you care for your undead relatives as the people they were, or do you ship them off to be cared for--or even disposed of--elsewhere.
The premise provides excellent points of insight into questions of grief and end-of-life care. At times, it even challenges conceptions of what life is or isn't.
Where the book goes wrong for me, however, is when Lindqvist tacks on additional supernatural phenomena. Not satisfied with this mass resurrection caused by some astronomical electrical disturbance, he throws in telepathic powers and a clear statement on the afterlife.
The undead, though not hungry for brains, somehow amplify the brain-waves of the living, kicking off a vague form of mind-reading and emotional amplification. I like the potential of this twist, but it seems to run counter to the realism that the book has established.
I know, how realistic can it be when people are rising from the dead? I get that, but I feel that when you're working in what I'll call the realistic-supernatural genre rather than pure fantasy or horror, you get one thing. You can create one thing that veers from reality as we know it, and then the heart of your story becomes dealing with that one thing in a world that is otherwise identical to our own. This creates the tension at the heart of these stories. It creates that feeling that, hey, this isn't like the movies, kids--this is what really happens when the dead come back to life. "Handling the Undead" definitely has that early on, but the telepathy element starts to stretch things.
I could live with this, however, if it weren't for what I feel was the book's big failing--making a definitive statement on the afterlife. For my money, unless the afterlife is your one thing--see, for instance "The Lovely Bones"--you can't make a clear statement on the afterlife in your realistic supernatural story. I'm not sure why this is such a deal breaker--maybe it's just personal taste--but whenever an author does this, it just rings very hollow to me. Further, when it becomes a major element of the plot--as it does here--it just seems like cheating.
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