Swedish horror novelist John Avide Lindqvist is best known in America for his debut novel, Let The Right One In, which inspired the 2008 film adaptation and the excellent American remake Let Me In. Lindqvist has a special, sympathetic feeling for childhood loneliness and the kind of adolescent rage that’s fed by bullying, ostracism, and frustrated desires, a quality that leant an ambiguous emotional texture to his vampire love story and his new novel, Little Star, billed as his first non-supernatural effort. It’s still ripe horror material. It begins in 1992, when Lennart, a middle-aged songwriter who lives in a remote part of the Swedish countryside with his wife, Laila, finds an abandoned baby girl while foraging for mushrooms in the woods. Lennart and Laila were once a singing duo, attaining one-hit-wonder status before their career ended in frustration, disappointment, and Lennart crippling Laila after catching her having sex with the leader of a rival group. (Storming away from the scene, Lennart “switched on the windshield wipers as if he were seeking some physical help to erase the image, but the cock forced its way though, violating him. It was that big.”) Lennart’s trained ear can tell from the baby’s crying that she has a remarkable voice, and he decides to take her home, where he and Laila raise her in the basement, in total isolation, like some combination of Kaspar Hauser and the frog from the Chuck Jones cartoon “One Froggy Evening.”
The baby, whose foster parents (or captors) name Theres, grows into a spooky, self-possessed creature with an uncanny singing voice and a mesmerizing stare. She also has a soulmate—Teresa, an overweight, intelligent girl her age, growing up in standard-issue suburban misery. After Teresa loses her only friend, a boy named Johannes, to the “normal” world when he starts dating a popular girl and acquires social acceptance, she falls in love with Theres’ voice when she spots her performing on the Swedish edition of American Idol. The two connect through a website where teenagers post and comment on each other’s poetry, and eventually begin writing songs together and putting their music on the Internet. As Theres becomes an underground sensation, they attract disciples: a special pack of alienated teenage girls who are fiercely devoted to the only people who’ve ever made them feel they’re part of something.
Little Star could have used some trimming, and parts of it, such as Lennart and Laila enjoying a mini-comeback when she lends her vocals to a sample-heavy dance track, don’t really go anywhere. But maybe the whole point of the comeback subplot is the joke that it doesn’t go anywhere. (Lindqvist does enjoy the occasional sick joke. One character in Little Star is a sexual masochist who, naked and faced with fatal torture at the hands of schoolgirls, is unable to prevent an erection.)
As before, Lindqvist makes the charting of his characters’ fates compelling while sustaining a note of rich, surpassing creepiness. The details of Theres’ unlikely rise, from her making the Idol cut to her dismissal from the show for failing to connect with the audience to her apotheosis on the Internet, feels scarily right. And Lindqvist’s wary sympathy for tortured adolescents isn’t merely extended to those still in high school. Theres learns music with the help of Lennart and Laila’s grown son, Jerry, a black sheep who first appears to be a seedy, ominous threat to her and everything decent. But he turns out to be perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. When Jerry was in school himself, he experienced an epiphany when he became hooked on video copies of splatter movies. It’s a scene familiar from armchair diagnoses of the early lives of serial killers, but Lindqvist writes, “He wasn’t sick in the head. He didn’t feel the slightest desire to do those kinds of things, and he thought the debate over moral harm that was raging just then was ridiculous. But somehow the film captured how it felt.”