It begins with disorientation. After a brief thematic preamble where author John Ajvide Lindqvist lays out pretty much all you need to know regarding the themes of I AM BEHIND YOU, you find yourself suddenly plunged into the thick of it. Lindqvist gives neither his audience nor his characters time to catch their bearings; you and they are simpatico, each thrust into the bizarre imaginings of the Swedish author’s latest creepy tale.
The effect is powerful; neither reader nor character is immediately sure what’s going on as you both are subjected to the exacting pushes of Lundqvist’s designs. Like the four families who find themselves suddenly ripped from their world and placed in a field of uncanny emptiness, you bring with you only what you have. In your case, that is your mind, the very tool Lindqvist wants to use against you.
First published in Sweden as Himmelstrand—a nod to famed Swedish songwriter Peter Himmelstrand, whose work plays an important role in the atmosphere of the novel—in 2014, I AM BEHIND YOU has finally received its American publication, giving us yet another chance to see why the author has been proclaimed “the Swedish Stephen King.” It’s certainly a well-deserved moniker. Best known for his seminal work, Let the Right One In, Lindqvist does a remarkable job at channeling early King in both tenor and tone, creating a work that bristles with intrigue and fright. I AM BEHIND YOU is deeply imaginative, pulling back the curtain on the hidden recesses of humanity in a twisted exploration of psychology.
The feeling of disorientation that washes over you from the opening pages never quite vanishes, even as you get to know the cast of characters assembled here by Lindqvist. If anything, it only worsens the more you find your bearings. As your understanding deepens, the less sense it all makes. What connects these four unconnected families? Why are they here? What, even, is “here”?
The surreality of Lindqvist’s barren landscape is heightened the more we learn about the 10 people (and two pets) who find themselves trapped within the author’s absurd machinations. There’s Peter, his wife Isabelle, and Molly, a would-be perfect family—a sports star and a model with a precocious little girl—afraid to admit their truths; there’s Stefan and Carina and their son, Emil, running like hell from the demons of their past; there’s Donald and Majvor, neither willing to admit their love has run its course; and there’s Lennart and Olof, old friends and dairy farm partners who are unable to admit what they are to each other.
Every character brings their secrets to a situation that has no rationality; past sins, current flaws, and unspoken truths all play a part in the slow unraveling of humanity as the four families each try to figure out what has happened to them and why it did.
Answers don’t come easy, however. Lindqvist isn’t an author with an abiding interest in spelling it out for you. This is bound to frustrate, confound, and anger certain readers, so if you’re the type who requires explanations and detailed accountings of what happened, consider yourself warned. The central mystery of I AM BEHIND YOU has little to do with the strange and mysterious place we find ourselves embedded in. Rather, Lindqvist is concerned with the mysteries of the human psyche and the fatal flaws that make us unique—and, often, terrifying—creatures.
After all, there’s nothing more strange or horrifying than our inner minds, the shadow of our consciousness that pushes and pulls us without our knowledge or consent. What Lindqvist has done here is provided a map to the darkest corners of humanity, leading us directly to the parts of ourselves we refuse to acknowledge or are too afraid to admit. It’s a location filled with almost equal measures of bleakness and hope, though how we view it might depend on what we’re willing to allow ourselves to see. In some cases, despair gets us nowhere, blinding us from the reality that a little work and effort might just save our lives. In others, hope might be the last thing we need to hold on to, even if that’s all we have left to grasp. If it’s disorienting, then it’s only because life tends to be. As bizarre and opaque as I AM BEHIND YOU so often is, Lindqvist has designed a uniquely unsettling and deeply moving work that solidifies his standing in horror literature.