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2 october 2012

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Geisterfjord, marketed (in German, at any rate) as a Thriller rather than one of her usual Krimis, is your basic ghost story. In the 2010s, it takes some literary nerve, and a firm control of that nerve, to write an unabashed ghost story in the hoary old M.R. James mode. But Yrsa brings it off with rare assuredness.

The question that drives any reader of a contemporary ghost story is: will the ghost turn out to be belated, and truly ectoplasmic, or will we get some sort of prosaic explanation that will trace the spectre to misapprehensions, or to fraudulent perpetrations? Naturally, despite my comfort with spoiling plots, I won't reveal whether the ghosts of Geisterfjord turn out to be spectral or prosaic.

But it's no surprise that the novel keeps you guessing, and in the quiet, unsensational way typical of the best supernatural stories. In contemporary pop horror fiction, the best parts usually come early. Something's not right with a house, or a graveyard, or a car, in a novel by Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Events are mildly creepy and rather unnerving. Then all hell breaks loose, and the forces of ancient prophecy and titanic madness are revealed to be seething in the sewers. There's always a tipping point in these novels where you might as well stop reading, because the remainder of the book is just going to get more and more ponderously preposterous.

Geisterfjord, however, gives us the eerie quality of the first 60 or 70 pages of a Dean Koontz novel, but sustained over its entire 348. The scariest stuff that happens for most of the book consists of creaking floorboards and ominously-strewn mussel shells. Yet such devices are usually far scarier than four-headed fire-breathing worm monsters. If I wake up tonight and see a fire-breathing worm monster in my kitchen, I'll assume it's a dream and have myself a good laugh. If I wake up tonight and find some rancid mussel shells there, unless I've fixed a zuppa di mare the night before, I'm going to freak out.

Geisterfjord is told in chapters that alternate invariably between the point of view of Freyr, a physician with a dreadful past, and Katrin, the bankrupt wife of a man with a plan. Garðar's plan is to renovate a ramshackle house with no mod cons on a deserted island during an Icelandic winter. Oh, and their cellphone batteries are running out. And there are those creaks and those shells. Nights last most of the day, and help is weeks away.

The two stories seem unconnected, but Yrsa sutures them slowly and skillfully together. Freyr's son disappeared years ago. A long-lost child seems to be haunting Katrin's island. (Inevitably, at one point, somebody says something like "Children disappear so rarely in Iceland!") The missing kids can't be together, let alone alive and together. Can they be the same kid? What on earth is going on?

No, I'm really not going to spoil the plot. But I hope that Geisterfjord soon finds an English translation. It's the best Yrsa (out of three, admittedly) that I've read, and marks a more sinister and uncompromising take on human – and supernatural? – evil.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Geisterfjord. [Ég man ðig, 2010.] Translated by Tina Flecken. 2011. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011.