“The sea is a God, an unseeing unhearing deity that surrounds us and has all imaginable power over us, yet does not even know we exist. We mean less than a grain of sand on an elephant’s back, and if the sea wants us, it will take us.That’s just the way it is, The sea knows no limits, makes no concessions. It has given us everything and it can take everything away from us.
To other Gods we send our prayer: Protect us from the sea.”
On the tiny island of Domarö in the Stockholm archipelago, Anders and his wife Cecilia take their daughter Maja to explore the lighthouse out on the frozen channel by the sea. At the top of the lighthouse in the lantern room, Anders and Cecilia steal a moment to reminisce about their childhood on Domarö, Maja sees something out on the ice and gets agitated and goes off into the adjoining room to play. When Anders and Cecilia go to look for Maja moments later, she is gone, leaving no footprints in the snow or any other sign of her passing. The novel that follows this event isn’t just about Anders’ grief or Maja’s disappearance, it is also a secret history of an Island of Mystery and a fairy tale wrapped in a horror novel born from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s elegantly simple prose.
Lindqvist is definitely most well known for authoring Let the Right One In, which was made into the incredible Swedish horror film of the same name and an excellent (although slightly redundant) American remake titled Let Me In. The novel Let the Right One In is much pulpier than the film adaptations and enjoys character driven shock value and splashing the grue much more than either film did. It’s said that Let the Right One In “re-invented” the vampire genre and to some extent I suppose it did re-invent it for audiences only familiar with the glittery, emo bloodsuckers we’ve been bombarded with over the last decade. For me the novel wasn’t so much a re-invention but more a distillation of the genre by taking out the glamour and decadence and stripping it down to the tale of a monster and its best friend. It made vampires a genuine threat again and showed that there was still (ahem) blood left to be squeezed from tales of the immortal. I haven’t read Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead, but what I’ve heard is that it’s way more interested on focusing on themes of grief and loss when faced with the end of society and a comfortable existence rather than telling a straight forward zombie survival story. When I sat down to open Harbor, I assumed it was going to be another deconstruction of familiar genre tropes but peppered with strong central characterization and a palpable sense of place. While I got the characterization and setting, the novel is much more structured around telling a scary story than examining horror as a concept.
After little Maja disappears, we pick up with Anders a few years later: Cecelia has left him, his grief is a constant consuming mass and he spends every minute of the day drunk on wine. He’s traveled back to Domarö so he can drink himself into oblivion surrounded by people he grew up with and to be enveloped by the memories of the last time he was happy. It is here where we meet the other two main characters of our story, Anna-Greta (Anders’ Grandmother) and Simon (Anna-Greta’s life partner). Anna-Greta and Simon have been together for 60 years but never married and live in separate cottages by the sea, but for all intents and purposes, Simon is Anders’ Grandfather and loves him very much. The second large story thread of the novel is Simon and his secret power which, in a lesser writers hands, could have been a magical deus ex machina that would have killed any momentum and danger inherent in the story but instead makes it feel organic and part of the larger mystery of the island.
When Simon was younger, he was a magician specializing in slight of hand work and narrow escapes such as Houdini was famous for. One day many years later (after his hands became too arthritic to practice magic anymore) while fishing for perch off of the jetty, Simon finds a black, worm-like insect called a Spiritus. He’d heard of them before through other magicians he’d admired in his youth and knew that a Spiritus could give you magical powers related to one of the elements. So, Simon picks up the Spiritus and spits on it, which instantly gives him power over all the water surrounding him (and he’s on an island). He can not only sense the paths of the water and how everything works, but he can also control it like Moses and get it to do pretty much anything he asks. At first, the Spiritus feels a bit like a get-out-of-jail-free card considering early in the novel Simon senses there’s something “broken” in the water and the reader has a pretty good idea that by “broken” he means “evil and scary”. It’s like having a story where a giant dog is terrorizing a small town and the town’s only weapon against it is a giant dog killing gun. It’s a massive deus ex machina, but by the end of the novel, I felt the Spiritus was explained well enough to feel organic instead of a convenient storytelling device.
The novel is very old fashioned in how simple the story is and how much of a slow burn it is to the final battle and that’s not a complaint at all. The book spends its first half jumping time periods and viewpoints so often (while slowly building the mythology of the island) that when it finally settles in and starts focusing in on Anders and his drunken grief, it becomes mesmerizing and impossible to put down. Anders is a difficult character to have fronting a novel. So much of his inner life is made up of self pity and a dangerous, spiraling depression, that spending four hundred pages with him is akin to hanging out with your suicidal ex-girlfriend for a weekend while she tells you how much better she’s doing at not cutting herself anymore. He’s hard to take sometimes, but he is just complicated enough to propel the story forward and keep you on his side throughout all of the mysterious, haunting occurrences on Domarö. Simon is a much more interesting character whose inner workings are consistently fascinating and propulsive, but by the time the final pages roll around he feels almost forgotten, like he was brought in from another novel without the structure being in place for his arrival. It’s truly the one big misstep of Harbor, but it’s still not enough of a derailment to keep the book from getting my recommendation.
I finished reading Harbor a few days ago, but I wanted to let it sit with me for awhile before writing the review, so I could figure out a way to correctly articulate how I was feeling. This novel haunted me a bit. The atmosphere is so thick with dread and bizarre occurrences that (even though the book doesn’t have many “scary” moments”) I found myself unable to let it go when I was trying to sleep at night. It’s not a flawless book by any stretch of the imagination, but the combination of the deceptively simple prose (born out of being translated into English from Swedish) and the concrete sense of place it builds, makes Harbor a story to share with those who love a less splattery horror tale, one built on character and a sense of timeless, ancient terror. When we finally get a look at the nameless evil of Domarö Island, it feels like we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that there is so much more to the story than the narrow version of events we get from Anders’ and Simon’s perspectives. I wanted to read more of this world and learn all I could about the secrets lurking beneath the frozen water and Lindqvist’s novel only teases the true scope of what’s really going on. Harbor is a joy to read, warts and all, and will stay with you long after you turn out the light.
This book is available from Thomas Dunne Books and can be purchased through Amazon HERE.