Let the Right One In was a vampire novel we hadn’t seen before, almost like it was trying to be an antidote to things going on in the genre. Not so much a return to form, but a reboot. And then Handling the Undead gave us a completely different kind of zombie, one which is maybe better at expressing our current set of anxieties than the flesh-eating shufflers we’re used to. So of course I came to Harbour expecting more of the same from John Ajvide Lindqvist—which is to say my expectations of course had some direct bearing on my read of Harbour. Much as the two we’ve seen from him previously have recast their respective sub-genres (vampires, zombies), what I was expecting from Harbour was a recasting of its sub-genre, which turned out to be the haunted house.
The zombie and the vampire, they’re not story types, they’re central characters. There are conventions and tropes associated with them, of course, and it’s hard to break out of those forms, but still, neither are as time-tested and well-trod as the haunted house story, I don’t think. With haunted house stories, it’s like we’re plugging variables into a Vladimir Propp fairy-tale formula: if this is the set-up, then the result is going to be either this or that. Very little deviation, even for an innovator and challenger like Lindqvist. With the haunted house you’ve always got the ‘Eleanor,’ who communes with the ‘presence’ and finally goes half-crazy; you’ve always got some version of the little girl slipping into the television screen; you’ve always got all the doubters you can scare up, even in the face of a chain of spooky events which should wash all doubt away. Or, like Eddie Murphy says: you’ve always got people who won’t just leave like they should.
Harbour does what it can with the haunted house, most obviously by ‘haunting’ the sea instead of a structure, and even suggesting some elder gods kind of stuff, but still, it’s Watcher in the Woods all over again. Which was pretty scary in the first place. And it is now as well, under Lindqvist’s capable pen. But, more than Watcher or Hill House or any of that, what Harbour finally feels the most like is Salem’s Lot. Well, Salem’s Lot with a little of that Lost dynamic. Which is to say that—and the story warns us about this almost immediately—each time we feel like we’re moving forward with things, we then have to stop, detour in-scene into the past, so as to further texture the present of the story. Once or twice, sure; throughout, though? It’s a little much.
I mean, granted, Harbour ends as excitingly as any Hollywood volcano movie, but to get to that point we have to wend our way through so much backmatter that it starts to feel like a slog. It took me two weeks to read this, I’m saying. Whereas Lindqvist’s other two, I inhaled them in record time, couldn’t put them down. And I’ll read more from him too, don’t get me wrong. What I hope, though, is that, because those first two were doorstop kind of thick, he doesn’t feel compelled to pad all his stories out to that kind of page-count. If the story’s calling for it, sure. But, in Harbour’s case, it could have been told so much more economically in a couple of hundred pages, maybe two-fifty.
However: what’s left for Lindqvist to tackle now, I wonder? Werewolves? I so so hope so. I would likely wade through any page-count to see what he’d do with them.