John Ajvide Lindqvist has been crowned the heir apparent to Stephen King by numerous sources, and he is heralded around the globe as one of the most spectacularly talented horror writers working today. His first novel, Let the Right One In, is a cult classic that has been made into iconic films in both Sweden and in the United States. His second novel, Handling the Undead, is beloved by horror fans everywhere. His third novel, Harbor, is a masterpiece that draws countless comparisons to Stephen King. Now, with Little Star, his most profoundly unsettling book yet, Lindqvist treads previously unmarked territory.
A man finds a baby in the woods, left for dead. He brings the baby home, and he and his wife raise the girl in their basement. When a shocking and catastrophic incident occurs, the couple’s son Jerry whisks the girl away to Stockholm to start a new life. There, he enters her in a nationwide singing competition. Another young girl who’s never fit in sees the performance on TV, and a spark is struck that will ignite the most terrifying duo in modern fiction.
Little Star is an unforgettable portrait of adolescence, a modern-day Carrie for the age of internet bullies, offensive reality television, and overnight You Tube sensations. Chilling, unnerving, and petrifying, Little Star is Lindqvist’s most disturbing book to date.
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Solliden, Skansen. June 26, 2007. Ten minutes to eight. The presenter is warming up the audience with a sing-along version of ‘I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again’. When the song ends a technician asks if all parents could please lift their children down off their shoulders so they won’t be hit by the camera cranes.
The sun is directly behind the stage, dazzling the audience. The sky is deep blue. The young people crowding the barriers are asked to move back slightly to avoid a crush. Sweden’s biggest music show will be on air in five minutes, and no one must be allowed to come to harm.
There must be these oases of pleasure, where everyday cares are set aside for a while. Nothing bad can happen here, and every possible security measure has been taken to keep this place of enjoyment safe.
Screams of pain, of terror, are unthinkable; there must not be blood on the ground or covering the seats when the broadcast is over. There must not be a corpse lying on the stage, with many more on the ground below. Chaos cannot be permitted here. There are too many people. The atmosphere must be calm and pleasant.
The orchestra strikes up with ‘Stockholm in My Heart’, and everyone joins in. Hands sway in the air, mobile phone cameras are raised. A wonderful feeling of togetherness. It will be another fifteen minutes until, with meticulous premeditation, the whole thing is torn to shreds.
Let us sing along for the time being. We have a long way to go before we return here. Only when the journey has softened us up, when we are ready to think the unthinkable, will we be permitted to come back.
So come on everyone! All together now!
Through Lake Mälaren’s love of the sea
a blend of fresh water and brine…
THE GIRL WITH GOLDEN HAIR
In the autumn of 1992 there were rumours of a mushroom glut in the forests; it was said that the warm moist weather of late summer had provoked a burst of chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. As Lennart Cederström turned off onto the forest track in his Volvo 240, he had a large basket and a couple of plastic bags on the back seat. Just in case.
He had a mix tape of pop hits on the stereo, and Christer Sjögren’s voice was loud and clear in the speakers: Ten thousand red roses I’d like to give you…
Lennart grinned scornfully and joined in with the chorus, imitating Sjögren’s mannered bass vibrato. It sounded excellent. Almost identical; Lennart was probably a better singer than Sjögren. But so what? He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time on too many occasions, seen too many golden opportunities snatched away from under his very nose or heard them zip past behind his back. Gone when he turned around.
Anyway. He would have his mushrooms. Chanterelles, the gold of the forest, and plenty of them. Then back home to blanch them and fill up the freezer, giving him enough for mushrooms on toast and beer every single evening until the Christmas tree was thrown out. Several days of rain had given way to a couple of days of brilliant sunshine, and the conditions were just perfect.
Lennart knew every bend in the forest track, and he screwed up his eyes and gripped the wheel as he sang.
Ten thousand roses in a pretty bouquet….
When he opened his eyes there was something black on the track ahead of him. Sunlight flashed on shining metal, and Lennart only just managed to swerve as it flashed by. A car. Lennart glanced in the rear view mirror to get the registration, but the car was doing at least eighty on the gravel track, sending up clouds of dust in its wake. However, Lennart was pretty sure it was a BMW. A black BMW with tinted windows.
He drove another three hundred metres to the place where he usually parked, switched off the engine and let out a long breath.
What the hell was that?
A BMW out here in the middle of nowhere wasn’t exactly a common sight. A BMW doing eighty along the gravel track leading out of the forest was a unique event. Lennart felt quite excited. He had been a part of something. In the moment when the black object came hurtling towards him, his heart had leapt and then quailed as if anticipating a fatal blow, before opening up and settling down once more. It was an experience.
The only thing that bothered him was that he couldn’t report the driver. He would probably have given the mushroom picking a miss so he could savour going home and calling the police, giving a detailed description of the encounter on a track with a thirty kilometres per hour limit. But without a registration number, it would be pointless.
As Lennart got out of the car and picked up his basket and his bags, the temporary rush gave way to a feeling he’d been bested. Again. The black BMW had won, in some obscure fashion. Perhaps it would have been different if the car had been a beaten-up old Saab, but it was definitely a rich man’s car that had covered his windscreen in dust and forced him into the ditch. Same old thing.
He slammed the car door and tramped off into the forest, head down. Fresh tyre tracks ran along the damp ground in the shade of the trees. Churned-up mud in one place indicated that a car had shot away here, and it wasn’t much of a leap to assume it was the BMW. Lennart gazed at the wide wheel marks as if they might offer him some evidence, or a fresh grievance. When nothing occurred to him he spat in the tracks instead.
Let it go.
He strode off into the forest, inhaling the aroma of warm needles, damp moss, and somewhere beneath everything else…the smell of mushrooms. He couldn’t pin it down to an exact spot, or identify a species, but a faint undertone in the usual scent of the forest told him the rumours were true: there were mushrooms here just waiting to be picked. His gaze swept the ground, searching for a difference in colour or shape. He was a good mushroomer, able to spot from a considerable distance a chanterelle hiding beneath undergrowth and grass. The slightest nuance in the correct shade of yellow, and he swooped like a hawk.
But this time it was a champignon he spotted. Ten metres away from him, a white button sticking up out of the ground. Lennart frowned. He had never come across a champignon around here before; the soil was wrong.
As he came closer, he saw he was right. Not a mushroom; the corner of a plastic bag. Lennart sighed. Sometimes people who were too idle to drive to the tip dumped stuff in the forest. He had once seen a guy hurl a microwave out of his car window. On that occasion he had made a note of the registration number and reported the incident in writing.
He was about to head off along his normal route, searching out the good mushroom places, when he noticed that the plastic bag was moving. He stopped. The bag moved again. It should have been something to do with the wind. That would have been best. But there wasn’t a breath of wind among the tree trunks.
He heard a faint rustling noise as the piece of plastic shifted again, and all of a sudden his legs felt heavy. The forest surrounded him, silent and indifferent, and he was all alone in the world with whatever was in the plastic bag. Lennart swallowed, his throat dry, and moved forward a few steps. The bag was motionless now.
Go home. Ignore it.
He didn’t want to see an old dog that had almost but not quite been put out of its misery, or a pile of kittens whose skulls had almost but not quite been smashed. He didn’t want to know about anything like that.
So it wasn’t a sense of responsibility or sympathy that drove him on towards the bit of plastic sticking up from the ground. It was ordinary human or inhuman curiosity. He just had to know, or that waving white flag would torment him until he came back to find out what he had missed.
He grabbed hold of the piece of plastic and instantly recoiled, his hands flying to his mouth. There was something inside the bag, something that had responded to his grip, something that felt like muscles, like flesh. The earth around the bag had recently been disturbed.
A grave. A little grave.
The thought took flight and suddenly Lennart knew exactly what had responded to his hand. Another hand. A very small hand. Lennart edged back to the bag and began to clear away the earth. It didn’t take long; the soil had been thrown carelessly over the bag, probably by someone without any tools, and in ten seconds Lennart had freed the bag and pulled it out of the hole.
The handles were tied together and Lennart ripped at the plastic to let in air, let in life. He managed to tear a hole in the bag, and saw blue skin. A tiny leg, a sunken chest. A girl. A baby girl, just a few days or weeks old. She wasn’t moving. The thin lips were pressed together, as if defying an evil world. Lennart had witnessed the child’s death throes.
He placed his ear to the child’s chest and thought he could hear the faintest echo of a heartbeat. He pinched the child’s nose between his thumb and forefinger, and took a deep breath. He pursed his lips to send a blast of air into the tiny mouth; he didn’t even need to take another breath in order to fill the little lungs once more. The air bubbled out, and the chest was still.
Lennart took another breath and as he sent the second puff down into the lungs, there it was. A shudder went through the tiny body and white foam was coughed up. Then a scream sliced through the silence of the forest and started time ticking once more.
The child screamed and screamed, and its crying sounded like nothing Lennart had ever heard before. It wasn’t broken or plaintive. It was a single, clear, pure note, emerging from that neglected body. Lennart had a good ear, and he didn’t need a tuning fork to tell him that it was an E. An E that rang like a bell and made the leaves quiver and the birds fly up from the trees.
The girl was lying on the passenger seat, wrapped in Lennart’s red Helly Hansen sweater. Lennart was sitting with his hands resting on the wheel, staring at her. He was completely calm, and his body felt as if it had been hollowed out. Clarified.
He had once tried cocaine, towards the end of the ’70s. A fashionable rock band had offered, and he had accepted. One line and that was it, he had never done it again—because it had been fantastic. Too fantastic.
We are always in a certain amount of pain. There is chafing somewhere, and if it isn’t in our body, then it’s in our mind. There’s an itch, all the time. The cocaine took it away. His body became a receptacle made of velvet, and within that receptacle there were only crystal clear thoughts. The mists had lifted, and life was wonderful. Afterwards, realising that striving to regain this feeling could become his life’s work, Lennart refrained from taking cocaine again.
As he sat here now with his hands resting on the wheel, he felt something similar. There was a stillness in him, the forest was glowing with autumn colours, and a great being was holding its breath and waiting for his decision. Lennart slowly reached for the ignition key—His hand! To think that he had a hand with five fingers that he could move as he wished! What a miracle!—started the car, and headed back the way he had come.
On the main road he was overtaken by several cars as he crawled along. The child had no basket or seat, and Lennart drove as if he were transporting a bowl filled to the brim with a priceless liquid. The child felt so fragile, so transient, that the slightest violent movement might hurl it out of existence.
His back was soaked with sweat by the time he turned into the drive ten minutes later, switched off the engine and looked around. Not a soul in sight; he scooped the child up in his arms and jogged up to the house. He reached the porch and discovered that the door was locked as usual. He knocked twice, paused, then knocked twice more.
A cold breeze swept over his damp back, and he clutched the child closer to his body. After ten seconds he heard Laila’s tentative footsteps in the hallway, saw the spy hole darken as she checked him out. Then the door opened. Laila stood there like a massive door stop.
‘Why are you back already, what have you got there—’
Lennart pushed past her and went into the kitchen. The door slammed behind him and Laila shouted, ‘Don’t you go in there with your shoes on, are you out of your mind, you can’t go in the house with your shoes on, Lennart!’
He stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, completely at a loss. He had just wanted to get inside, into the safety of the house. Now he didn’t know where to turn. He made to put the child down on the kitchen table, then changed his mind and held it close as he spun around, searching for inspiration.
Laila came into the kitchen, red in the face. ‘Take your shoes off when you come in, I’ve just finished cleaning up and you—’
Laila’s mouth closed and she recoiled half a step. Lennart loosened his grip on the child and unwrapped the sweater so that the head and a tuft of blonde hair were visible. Laila’s mouth opened again. Gaped.
Lennart raised and lowered the bundle. ‘I found a child. A baby. In the forest.’
There was the faint click of Laila’s tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth and pulling free as she groped for something to say. Eventually she managed to whisper, ‘What have you done?’
‘I haven’t done anything, I found her in the forest. In a hole.’
Lennart explained briefly. Laila stood there motionless, her hands folded over her stomach. Only her head moved, from side to side. When Lennart reached the point where he blew air into the child’s lungs, he broke off. ‘Can you stop shaking your head while I’m telling you this? It’s bloody irritating.’
Laila’s head stopped in mid-movement. She took a hesitant step forward and peered at the child with an expression of restrained horror. The child’s eyes and mouth were tightly screwed up. Laila began to knead her cheeks. ‘What are you going to do?’
Little Star © John Ajvide Lindqvist 2012