Gothic romance is a genre that flourished during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It concerns itself with the fascination with death and horror but in a way that draws from the traditions of romanticism: a pleasurable kind of terror so to speak. In today’s world, the Gothic romance is something much rarer than it once was. I want to see why this is. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist is the example I intend to use to help me identify what the modern Gothic romance actually is.
In traditional Gothic romance, the atmosphere was an important characteristic. The Gothic architectural movement largely influenced it. The novels were often set in imposing, surreal castles. The goal of such a dark setting was to create a sense of unease and foreboding in the reader. This is then compounded by harrowing atmospheres like floorboards creaking or ominous weather conditions. Then, the plot itself is often shrouded in a mysterious other-worldliness. The protagonist, more often than not, was an anxious female in some kind of distress which only added to the atmosphere. Opposite to this was the powerful, tyrannical and impulsive male that brought a sense of danger to the plot. All of this contributed to a plot that intertwined themes of sublime, love, death, and the supernatural. Of course, this is just a generalisation, and the stories did differ from each other in some way, these are just the basics elements that constituted the archetypal gothic romance.
So how does Let the Right One In compare to this?
It takes place in Blackenberg, a suburb in Sweden where the author grew up. He explains in an interview with The Northlander that some parts of the story are based on his own experiences. The Gothic has a long history of mingling the unreal with the real. In The Monk, for instance, Matthew Lewis uses the Castle of Lindenberg for his supernatural ‘bleeding nun’ subplot. Lindqvist also uses real news bulletins and fragments in the story to add to its authentic feel. Where the gothic romance had castles in Let the Right One In, Lindqvist has a ‘three-storied apartment block’, something that still fits the Gothic ideal but is perhaps more in line with contemporary living. The weather is cold, snowy, and at one point there is a ‘bloody moon’. There are also the tensions of Sweden in the 1980's: of the cold war, of increased liberality, of the struggles of a diversifying and evolving society. Even in the portrayal of the adults, there is a feeling of neglect, obliviousness and distance. All of this contributes to creating a very modern atmosphere that also has a traditionally gothic feel to it.
Although the atmosphere is an important part of what makes a Gothic romance, the central aspect will always be the characters.
The first character I will look at is Eli. Eli is a two-hundred-year-old vampire that has been frozen in the body of a child. She moves to Blackenberg at the beginning of the novel, and the entire plot revolves around the short time she spends there. Eli lives in the flat next door to Oskar. There is a sense of surreal hopelessness to Eli’s character throughout the story, and it can be said that there are certain similarities to the archetypal ‘male’ figure in traditional Gothic romances. Later we find out that she has no gender, but in this essay, I will refer to her as a she. The aspect of Eli’s character I will look at first is that she is a vampire.
The folkloric vampire was a creature of nightmare, a walking corpse, a phantom from beyond the grave, a true monster. Interpretations of the vampire did vary from country to country, but the general ideas about them all vary. They were the reincarnations of those who had died. In most cases, they were said to have retained some of the appearance of the former host but with deathly pale complexions and sharp, protruding canines. Afflicted with an insatiable lust for drinking blood they roamed the night in search of victims and by daybreak would return to their coffins or graves. They were a personification of the unseen evil, of the unknown terror. Vampires became responsible for several unexplainable casualties from plague epidemics to childhood death.
This was exacerbated in 1348 in the form of the Black Death. It saw up to sixty percent of Europe’s total population wiped out. Whilst this was not directly related to the development of the vampire, it began a romanticised fascination with human suffering, which would eventually lead to the emergence of the Gothic tradition.
In 1764, Horace Walpole published his novel, The Castle of Otranto which began the Gothic literary tradition. A succession of sublime, internalised, and harrowing literary works soon followed: The Monk, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This, alongside Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and also William Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood, provided the perfect catalyst for the vampire archetype.
In 1897, one of today’s most recognisable vampire re-imaginings came to light, Dracula. The fears of modern technology now replaced the unexplained plague epidemics and the incomprehensible deaths of old. His novel embodied the gender roles and sexual repression that was prevalent in Victorian society. This is perhaps why we see a new breed of slick, highly sexualised vampire. Dracula has since seen numerous theatrical adaptations, and as a result, Bram Stoker’s vampire has almost become the dominant archetype for most, if not all subsequent vampire iterations.
The vampire we know today is almost synonymous with sexuality. In most cases, they are tall, dark, and handsome, where once they were evil, now they are just misunderstood. Perhaps this is a response to a more morally complex world. Perhaps it is just a proven way to sell a book or a film. One of the more successful variants of this recently is in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. Her vampire is a sympathetic vampire, a teenage boy who struggles against his appetite for blood.
So how does Lindqvist’s vampire relate to this?
We are first introduced to Eli early on in Let the Right One In. There is no outward indication that she is a vampire. Instead, we are told there was a ‘corpse’ like smell to her, and that at one point in the meeting with Oskar, she looked like an ‘old woman about to cry’. Later in the book, we are told that whilst hunting her feet and hands transformed into ‘claws’ giving her a wild beast-like quality. This description is more of a throwback to the folkloric vampire. By doing this, I think Lindqvist manages to strip away the veneer of glamour and sexuality that is so prominent in the modern vampire.
This is only furthered by his decision to make his vampire a child. In Anne Rice’s book Interview with the Vampire, we also see a child vampire, Claudia. However, it is clear in her characterisation that the sexual theme is still prominent. In Lindqvist’s vampire sexuality is replaced by violence and danger. He openly says that he wanted to reject the notions of the romanticised vampire and focus more on what it actually means to be a monster that is destined to be eternally trapped in the body of a child. There is still an undercurrent of sexuality, though. We see this in Eli’s relationship with Håkan. Håkan is Eli’s human handler. He is manipulated into killing for Eli through his paedophilic desire for her. This seems to be more of a means to an end rather than towards a self-awakening as it does in Claudia’s case. To me, it is symbolic of how childhood innocence can so easily be lost because of circumstance.
Either way, we are made to feel sympathy for Eli, sympathy because she is a child, sympathy because she has had to live with her affliction alone for so long, but also because she never sets out to spread her curse. She snaps the necks of her victims so the curse cannot enter their bloodstream. Despite her best intentions though there are two instances within the story where her victims do not die and are turned into vampires. In Virginia, a woman who is turned into a vampire mid-way through the book, we see her struggles to adapt: she drinks her own blood, she can no longer bear to be in sunlight, and she can feel something growing inside her heart. As the story goes on, all this becomes too much for her, and she tragically takes her own life.
In my opinion, this perfectly rounds off Lindqvist’s vampire. It is not something sexualised and desirable like it has been in recent representations, but it is not the personification of evil like its older iterations either. It is Lindqvist’s own creation. He has developed the idea, added new dimensions of moral ambiguity to it, and through his characterisation changed the way we look at the vampire.
Another major aspect of Eli’s character is that she is genderless. This is hinted at throughout the book, but it is not until the later stages that we find out fully. Eli was originally Elias, a young boy. When she was transformed into a vampire, she was also castrated.
The Gothic has a long history of subverting and playing with issues of sexuality. As a genre, it is so closely interwoven with the society of the time that such a reaction was perhaps inevitable. In The Monk, for instance, Ambrosio, an extremely devout monk, forfeits his eternal salvation through his own sexual desires. For someone so highly thought of within the church, this notion would be unheard of in eighteenth-century Madrid. We have also already seen how the vampire has been developed to encapsulate sexuality and lust.
Although Gothic had toyed with these kinds of ideas for as long as it has been around, it was only in the twentieth century that that idea of queerness as a form of art came to prominence. In particular, it came two major social movements; from gay liberation and also by second-wave feminism. Queerness, in art, means to destabilise norms and to toy with meaning.
In today’s western society, we live in cultures that are more sexually aware, cultures that view things like same-sex desires as normal, can such a concept still shock? Can it still be seen to subvert? Can it still be part of the modern Gothic novel? I think it can be and in Let the Right One In it is. Whilst the themes of sexuality are largely stripped away. There is a definite question of gender identity. Is Eli a boy? Is Eli a girl? In her own words, she is neither. Can a person have no gender, though? This leads us to question the very idea of gender. What is gender exactly? Are we born with gender, or are we just conditioned to identify with one? The Gothic should do this, it should question, it should be sublime, it should subvert. This is just another example of where Lindqvist remained true to the Gothic tradition but also developed it with his own thoughts and ideas.
Oskar, Lindqvist’s protagonist, is a socially isolated, awkward twelve-year-old boy with a fascination with executions and murder. If Håkan and Eli’s relationship represents a loss of childhood innocence, then in Eli’s friendship with Oskar, it is regained. This is what he gives Eli. What Eli gives Oskar are strength and protection. At the start of the book, Lindqvist hones in on Oskar’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He is bullied at school, and he urinates on himself when he is intimidated. Choosing to show Oskar in such a way is not too dissimilar to the representations of the female protagonists in early Gothic romances. As his relationship with Eli develops, he finds a new kind of strength. She tells him to stand up for himself. Whether telling a child to fight back against his oppressors is responsible is perhaps not for me to say.
The way Lindqvist portrays Oskar is also invaluable to the eerie atmosphere that runs through Let the Right One In. This is another similarity to the protagonists of the traditional Gothic romance. We get the impression that at any moment, something bad could happen. We experience Oskar’s anxieties, we see his pain, and we feel the weight of the things he leaves unsaid.
In Oskar and Eli, I think Lindqvist manages to recapture the two main roles of a gothic romance. The roles are changed, they are shifted, they are subverted; the powerful male role is a young girl that is not actually a girl, and the anxious female is now a twelve-year-old boy. Obviously, this is a very simplistic generalisation, but it should at least show that the basic elements are there. By doing this, he successfully breathes life into a genre that is swamped in melodrama and cliché.
Love is a major theme in Let the Right One In. We see this not only in Eli and Oskar’s plot but also in the some of the subplots. Fully developed sub-plots were a major feature in the traditional Gothic romance. Using The Monk once again, two subplots could be stories in their own right; ‘the wandering Jew’ and ‘the bleeding nun’. In Let the Right One In, we see Lacke and Virginia’s tragic love story, the story of Håkan’s forbidden love for Eli, and Oskar’s relationship with his neglectful parents.
The whole idea of Gothic literature is one that is very closely related to the society we live in. The Gothic novels of the 1790's, for instance, are said to be a reaction to the French revolution, Frankenstein can be attributed to the developments in anatomy and electricity, and we have already seen how the vampire has developed. The Gothic has always been about expressing the terrors of real life, but in the face of global terrorism, further advancements in technology, a new wave of more complex epidemics, an ever-growing populous and even increasing globalisation, I think that Gothic literature can still thrive in the modern world
Let the Right One In is a good example of this. It is a Gothic romance; it feels the same, it sticks to a lot of the rules of the genre, but it has done it in a new way, in a way that feels modern. It perfectly shows that Gothic themes are out there for the modern-day novelist. For instance, Lindqvist plays on the fears of immigration, something that is still apparent, and arguably more widespread today. Now fear and terror is less about the things we do not know or understand but closer to those that we do; it is the Håkan’s of this world, the warring ideologies, or the failures of diplomacy.