Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist is a chilling tale of adolescence and loneliness, of anxiety and celebrity, of misplaced idolatry, cultish devotion, and unmitigated obsession. The story opens as Lennart, an abusive ass-butt of a husband and moderately successful but largely forgotten folk musician, stumbles upon a man ditching a half-dead baby in the woods. He revives the girl and spirits her back to his home, and he and his cowed and depressed wife Laila decide to keep the disconcerting creature instead of turning her over to the authorities. They raise the creepy kid in their cellar, plying her with baby food, classical music, and terrifying lies that would make even the Grimm brothers shake in their boots. A series of unfortunate events deposits Little One with Lennart and Laila’s adult son, Jerry, a failure in every sense of the word. Jerry introduces his adopted sister, now dubbed Theres, to the world outside the cellar, a world full of Big People who want to eat her up.
A few hours away lives another troubled and odd little girl, this one named Teresa. She frets over existentialism and philosophy in a way Theres does not. Theres sees exactly what’s there and never what people want her to see; Teresa never sees what’s in front of her face and drives herself crazy town banana pants trying to make herself fit into pre-defined molds. When Theres turns up on the Swedish singing competition reality show Idol, Teresa falls into a deep infatuation that binds her inextricably to Theres. And that’s when things get really weird.
Little Star feels like two novels glued together. The first half or so of the book is centered around Theres’ life in the broken and disfunctional Cedarström family. It’s tense, gorgeous, and perpetually unnerving. The whole thing has the air of something about to happen, as if something wicked is lurking just off camera. Calling it the heir to the crown currently held by Song of Kali isn’t just me being hyperbolic.
It’s in the latter portion—really, once Teresa shows up—that the book took a sharp left turn for me. Suddenly it stopped being a horror story with fifty shades of dark fantasy and became a poor man’s knock-off of We Need to Talk About Kevin with a bunch of blood and guts and gore thrown in to keep the fright train going. It also went from being unexpected and unknowable to predictable and frustrating. Lindqvist has crafted an intricately written, haunting tale of modern-day horror and the horror of modern living. But it’s also severely overstuffed and rambling. Did there need to be 100 pages of Theres’ pseudo-angsty poetry or 200 pages of negligible parenting by a couple of inattentive suburbanites? Not especially.
But that isn’t what turned me off. No, the problems for me lay in two places. The first issue is one I find happens a lot in horror. Not a single character acts like a real person. The only reason Lindqvist’s characters behave the way they do is that if any of them did what anyone of us would do IRL—namely, drop off that sociopathic little girl at the nearest police station—is that it would immediately end the book. It’s the same reason horny teenagers go off to make out in Jason Vorhees-infested campgrounds – not because hormone-addled 18-year-olds love getting it on in haunted forests but because if they don’t you don’t have a movie. Which means if you’re going to have characters do something completely ridiculous, you’re going to need to give a viable reason why.
The reason none of the characters ever turn on Theres is because she’s bewitching and unearthly and sings with supernatural ability. And that leads to my second problem. Lindqvist hinges everything on Theres being fantastical and then refuses to ever discuss it. Who is the mystery man who dumped her in the woods and why did he do it? Did he know she was going to be evil or was he just trying to get rid of a mistake? Was she born paranormal or was that a side effect of almost dying? What the frak is going on? But that’s just the thing: this book isn’t intended as fantasy. So she’s not half-Siren then, I guess. Then how did she get her inhuman singing talent? It’s Chekhov’s gun: don’t introduce an eldritchian kid in Act 1 if you’re not going to do anything eldritchy with her by Act 3.
Look, I don’t need my characters to try to be real, living, breathing human beings, nor do I need to even like them. Hell, some of my favorite characters in fiction are the ones I’d hate to sit down and have a conversation with (there’s not enough money in the world to get me to take tea with Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but if you’re setting a book in the real world and using the story as a commentary on the isolated nature of contemporary society or whatever then I expect the characters to behave as normal people would. I also don’t need to know every single reason for why something happens. A magician never reveals blah blah blah. Fine. But if it’s established that the ONLY reason the characters behave the way they do is because of this magical mystery thing, then there has to be a reason for the magical mystery thing’s existence beyond that it affects the characters. You can’t just wave your jazz hands in front of me while shouting “MAGIC” and expect me to just be fine with that.
All of this seems to be just my problem. As I said, everyone else seems to love this novel. Lindqvist is Sweden’s answer to Stephen King and what not. Even the portions I found most annoying were still exceptionally well written. It’s very easy to get lost in Lindqvist’s proficiency with his craft. Little Star is one of those novels that you sit down only planning to read a chapter or two and find yourself four hours later utterly engrossed. Obviously I had several major issues with the book, but I’m also obviously the minority in my opinions. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and for a lot of people I suspect my sticking points will be forgivable/ignorable/non-problematic, or more of a “forest for the trees” situation. So don’t listen to little ole’ grumpy me. Check out this excerpt and decide for yourself.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.