John Ajvide Lindqvist, Harbor (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
When your first book is one of the best horror novels in dog's years, you set yourself a standard to which, to be blunt, it may be impossible to measure up. Such was the case with John Ajvide Lindqvist and Let the Right One In, which effectively redefined the vampire novel (and, in the process, saved it from woeful Stephenie Meyer wannabes) and was as thrilling for what it said about the state of horror fiction as for anything between its covers. It is a brave and beautiful book, and as much as I loathe the term “instant classic”, an oxymoron if ever there was, if I were ever to apply it to anything, it would be that novel.
I still haven't read his second, Handling the Undead. I should. I want to. I just haven't got round to it yet, a failing on my part. So I have no idea if it's anywhere near as good as LtROI. So I'm coming into Harbor with incomplete information in that regard. I have to treat it as Lindqvist's second novel, rather than his third, and compare it to one of the best horror novels of the past thirty or forty years. Anything would suffer in comparison, really. And thus I find myself saying what I assumed I would be saying from the moment it hit my doorstep: Harbor can't hold a candle, much less a lighthouse, to Let the Right One In. But that doesn't mean it's not a cracking story.
Plot: Anders and Cecilia were childhood sweethearts who grew up to have what seemed to be the perfect life on Domarö, a small island off the east coast of Sweden. Until, that is, the opening scene of this novel, in which they take their six-year-old daughter, Maja, on a picnic to a lighthouse across the (frozen) channel from their house. They go off and explore the things around the lighthouse that interest them...and Maja disappears without a trace. Fast-forward two years. The two of them left the island, and Cecilia left Anders, who seems still in shock. Desperate to find a way to put the event past him, he returns to Domarö, alone, to see if he can find out what truly happened to his daughter. His grandmother and her boarder, a longtime family friend, are the only people who will get close to Anders, though this being an insular population, everyone knows everyone else—and him, since he and Cecilia grew up on the island. Even the old teen “gang” Anders and Cecilia ran with is still around, causing minor mischief and generally making older residents look at them with a combination of frustration and fondness. But the more Anders digs, and the closer he comes to completely losing his sanity (he knows he's close to the edge when he starts hallucinating Maja), the more he realizes that the townsfolk know a great deal more than they're telling—and that Maja's disappearance might not be a singular event.
It's good stuff, supernatural and thrilling and in some odd way reminiscent of King's Duma Key, albeit much colder, in an entirely different way than LtROI reminded one of 'Salem's Lot (the memories there were all meta, of how King redefined the vampire genre in the same way Lindqvist did thirty-odd years later). But it lacks...something...that LtROI has. I think that “something” has to do with the borders Lindqvist was so insistent on kicking against, and shattering, in the previous novel. This one is far more a traditional ghost story/mystery, and rest assured that if that's what you're looking for, Lindqvist hits all the right notes, throwing in a few fun subplots for good measure and a host of characters that range from the sympathetic (Anders finds a possible romantic interest even while desperately hoping that solving the case will put him back together with Cecilia despite her protestations) to the horrific (a couple of members of Anders' old gang who have become true miscreants). There's nothing at all wrong with the book, in fact... save that it isn't Let the Right One In. Which is making me sound like I recommend it far less highly than I do. It's an excellent novel being held to an unfair standard. ****