John Ajvide Lindqvist: A magician of genre fiction

Lindqvist revitalised vampires in 'Let the Right One In'. Now the former conjuror calls up monsters of the sea.
Click to follow

As an illustration of the art he used to practise, John Ajvide Lindqvist casually picks up a pen lying on the desk between us. It vanishes – yes, I saw it "disappear" - and then swiftly rematerialises. Shazzam: just standard-issue "street magic" of the kind that the former professional conjuror once performed at home in Stockholm, in London and in Amsterdam. One tends to witness this repertoire of tricks less often during literary interviews. But then Lindqvist can boast a far from standard authorial CV. First a magician, then a stand-up comedian, he began a decade or so ago to write fantasy fiction that, in a feat of literary escapology, has slipped the shackles of its genre.

"I still can't really understand how this happened," the Swedish novelist says, a wiry, youthful 42-year-old with, in English, an enviably nimble turn of phrase. "I just intended to write a horror story as well as I could – and my problem with a lot of horror stories is that the characters are one-dimensional or, if it's a good one, two-dimensional. And the people you are supposed to care for are the ones you want the monster to eat first - because you find them disgusting!"

That "horror story" went on to grip hearts around the world. Set in the humdrum Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, where Lindqvist grew up with his mother, Let The Right One In (2004) gained critical plaudits and besotted admirers in Sweden and abroad. The story of lonesome Oskar and his sadly eternal friend Eli filled the tattered cloak of the vampire yarn with an emotional, and social, truth that lent human substance to its supernatural machinery. "If a child was a vampire, having to kill other people and drink the blood in order to survive, what would existence be for this child? It would just be a lonely, loathsome, terrible existence," he reflects.

Tomas Alfredson's quietly devastating film turned Lindqvist's melancholy tale of the adolescent undead into a global cult. So far, it has picked up around 60 awards worldwide. On 5 November, Let Me In, Matt Reeves's much-trailed Hollywood remake, will reach our screens. How does it compare? Lindqvist now feels "very happy" with the transatlantic makeover: "Let The Right One In was a wonderful Swedish movie; this is a wonderful American movie." He adds that "It's more of a horror movie than the Swedish one. All of the things designed to scare you are more elaborate. Which I love, because I am a horror writer and I want to scare... it's in-your-face, but in a very good way!"

This week sees the UK publication of Harbour, Lindqvist's fourth book (translated by Marlaine Delargy; Quercus, £17.99). Here the underlying menace has grown in scope until it suffuses, or suffocates, an entire community. On the fictitious – or composite - island of Domarö in the Stockholm archipelago, a child disappears from the February ice. Six-year-old Maja does not drown; she is not abducted. She vanishes, as in a magician's trick. Her parents Anders and Cecilia must confront the sum of all fears. "This is the story where I have very carefully examined my own fear of my child disappearing," says Lindqvist. He tried "to put myself back in to the emotions I had at moments when he was gone and we couldn't find him."

Once his own son went astray for a while in the winter woods. He recalls "this sinking feeling – your heart starts freezing as you're following his footsteps in the snow". The snow had been light; the tracks faded. Even worse, "My thought at that moment wasn't that a bad man had taken him, or that he fallen and broken his neck. It was that he had actually disappeared. I never deserved to have him, and now he had been taken from me. He had just vanished" – Lindqvist mimes a conjuror's puff of smoke – "from the face of the earth".

This all-too-real dread expands into a universe of grief and fear. Wrecked by his loss, Anders returns to the island. Via the elderly magician Simon and the wise, mysterious Anna-Greta – a retired Baltic smuggler queen – he learns of a fatal pact the islanders have made in the remote past with the once angry, now weary, forces of the sea. The novel's notion of an implacable marine god gives a light paranormal twist to the hopes and risks of every coastal community.

One starting-point for Harbour arrived when Lindqvist, on another island, watched a flock of birds shift its shape like some sort of morphing cloud. "It gave me this very simple idea - that it's trying to tell us something. That other forces than the ones we can see are governing this archipelago."

The suspicion and insularity of his Domarö folk may hide a special secret, but it also dramatises the self-containment of all island peoples. As a child, Lindqvist spent summers on these coasts with his fisherman father, who lived there permanently. So early on he came to grasp the gulf between visitors and residents. "Nobody can move to a small community of any kind without getting this feeeling – that everybody is hiding something. I'm exploiting that feeling to the extreme."

Lindqvist used to go out to catch herrings in his father's boat, at a time when the now-depleted seas – another real-world motif behind the fantastic elements of Harbour – still swarmed with fish. "And then he drowned, 11 years ago. I think this was one of my starting-points for writing horror... I don't really have to excuse myself for writing about terrible things."

A teenage horror fan, Lindqvist found in the form his "big literary interest" until he was 18 or so. "It's the genre I know best. But it never occurred to me that I could write in it until I was 32, when I started Let The Right One In". In Harbour, the almost abstract, all-encompassing nature of the threat from the sea may put readers in mind of the Gothic nebulosity of HP Lovecraft. Lindqvist has read all the verbose American enchanter's work and admits "the vast scale of the monster" invites comparison. But "I'm not quite as fond of adverbs and adjectives as him!" Reading Lovecraft is "almost like sinking into a pot of porridge – but then you stay there, and it's warm and cosy!"

Harbour has its frankly wacky strands. A pair of biker spectres with a very bad attitude speak entirely in lines from Smiths and Morrissey songs (of course, Let The Right One In half-cites the great Manchester melancholiac, still a Lindqvist favourite). Or rather, they do in Swedish. In English, we have to make do with paraphrase as "the rights-holders wouldn't allow us" to use exact quotations.

For the most part, though, Lindqvist again trips along that thin high wire between supernatural devices and psychological verities. "This is what I do strive to do," he says. "All the notes I made while writing are about how to keep this balance. I'm very aware that at the end I went over the top, but with the best of intentions."

Distraught, alcoholic but supernaturally sensitive in his grief, Anders starts to imagine, then believe, that Maja is trying to communicate with him. Again, a universal symptom of bereavement takes an uncanny but credible turn. The forlorn father is "wide open to these small signs," Lindqvist says. "As a storyteller, of course, I can make these signs be real."

Meanwhile, Simon the professional spellbinder has to come to terms with paranormal phenomena beyond his craft. In one pivotal, and chilling, scene, the illusionist sets about slipping his chains at the bottom of the harbour – part of his stock-in-trade – only to encounter a far more sinister force. A rational trickster confronts an irrational power: "This idea has been with me for a long time. How would you handle that?" Did the writer ever attempt Houdini-style stunts? "I'm aware of how they are done. But I never dared."

It seems unlikely that Harbour's climactic burst of maritime myth will please the sort of critic who thinks that no serious exercise in the uncanny should stray any further into the truly inexplicable than, say, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. "I wanted it to be over-the-top and too much," Lindqvist reports. "I don't want to start thinking, what will the literary reviewers say? And, sure enough, this is the thing the book has been a little bit criticised for". That hasn't stopped Harbour winning a high-prestige Swedish prize. In a curiously apt image, its author describes that accolade as "the final nail in the coffin" of his literary elevation. "This book has somehow cemented my position as a 'real' writer."

Between monsters outside and demons within, Lindqvist covers the haunted waterfront. It makes for some lively book launches. "I do get heavy literary awards and, on the other hand, the Goth people are big fans of my books – which can make an interesting mingle situation at my release parties." At such bashes, "teenagers with a lot of piercings" will rub chain-draped shoulders with "highbrow journalists".

His latest novel, Little Star, appeared earlier this year. Its only fantastic element involves a little foundling – a baby girl discovered in the forest – who can sing pitch-perfect notes. "That's the only supernatural thing. It could even happen – though it's extremely unlikely." However, "the rest of it is the evil of people – and the music industry!"

He has also just written, in a rush, a zombie novel as an MP3 file: "because I wanted to see if I could write abook in 50 days. But after that I'm aiming for something immense, which will involve the murder of Olof Palme, the changes in Swedish society" – and even camper-van fraternities.

With the mysteries of Stieg Larsson and many others, outsiders may feel that the unsolved assassination in 1986 of Palme, Sweden's radical prime minister, still burrows its way through the national psyche in all sorts of unsettling ways. "Swedish society started to change around that time," Lindqvist recalls. "The Social Democratic utopia wasn't really going to happen any more."

As that dream died, so a climate of grief, suspicion and unease seems to have spread out virus-like through Swedish popular fiction to haunt the imagination of the world. After all, as Lindqvist's novels themselves show, many of our grimmest nightmares take shape in the clear light of day.