Stallo, by Stefan Spjut, was a book I picked up on a whim. A new release with compelling quotes on the cover and an almost irresistible blurb on the back. It was creepy, disturbing and suggestive of what to expect, but the book is quite different to what the jacket suggests. I went in expecting horror, but what the book ended up being was more of a meditation on Scandinavian folklore, and it’s place in modern Sweden. This isn’t a bad thing, it is an interesting concept and the exploration of it is verdant ground for a story. The problem lies more in the cognitive dissonance caused by the promise of the jacket and the actual content of the story. Stallo suffers from an identity crisis.
To be perfectly honest, the primary reason I picked this up was due to the expectation of horror. I wanted a creepy story housed in the perpetually interesting mythology and legends of this location. That it focuses more on the place these creatures and concepts have in the modern world isn’t a failure at all, it just won’t be what anyone expects when picking this up. The meat is found in the idea of the old world being supplanted by the new. The world is not what it was and the belief once held in the incredible has now been pushed to the fringes of society, that one who espouses belief in such things should be the object of ridicule and discredited. This is a familiar concept in contemporary genre fiction. We increasingly feel that myths and fairy tales are things for children, that considering magic of the old world is for lunatics and the emotionally immature. Stallo is a window into what might be occurring should there be truth in the old stories. Not just truth in wisdom, which is an unassailable fact, but truth in their actual existence.
Stallo is a world in which a nation and a continent, steeped in stories and legends of incredible power, have lost the magic and belief it once had. It muses upon this loss, and transplants a very real threat by these creatures to the most innocent of any society, the children. The real mystery in this book, for me, comes from the keepers of these creatures. This is also the real tragedy. They are carers, concealers and keepers of the Stallo, but also their prisoners. The story begins with the disappearance of a child, an inexplicable and scary idea, but the reasoning behind it and the results of this act have far-reaching implications. The book takes on a mournful tone once you encounter these people. Characters in this book have an awareness of the supernatural, of its reality, but rather than being freed by this knowledge they are prisoners of it. The places where these creatures live are far less magical or incredible than one would expect; they are not free and mysterious in a pristine wilderness, their home is more synonymous with a leper colony. It is unclean, unnatural and goes a long way to encapsulating the esteem under which they are held in modern society.
These creatures are ugly, they are repellent and there is absolutely no cheery rose coloured romanticism to be found in this book. It is bleak, it is dark and it is cold. People are uprooted, confined and restricted. The austere landscapes of Sweden coalesce with the darker tones of the novel. It creates a pressurised atmosphere, an ever-present spectre of stress and strain. Bad decisions and desperation force actions and the loss of control become palpable. One thing that becomes increasingly clear is the utter alien nature of these creatures. They aren’t conveniently anthropomorphised, adjusting their behaviour to be accessible or comprehendible to the human mind; they are, and remain, absolutely inscrutable. If anything in this book is scary, it is the power that these entities hold, and how little they are understood. Reinforced by how little concern they have to be understood. One thing that detracts from the overall readability of the novel, and my view of it as a self-contained story, is the lack of an explanation in some of the protagonist’s motivations and the overall construction of their organisation.
I’m a stickler for exposition, especially when books hint at a hidden structure that interests me. It isn’t always realistic to expect an exploration, or light to be shed on the entire edifice, but it leaves too many questions unanswered. This reaction could be due to a lack in my knowledge, however, for if this aspect of the story is linked or influenced from an existing folklore or mythology it may not require further explanation. This does impact the story as a casual reader though.
There is a lot to like about this novel, but it is essential that you know what kind of book it is before you wade in. It is definitely not a horror novel; it is not scary or filled with dread. It is more of an exploration of folk tales and creatures that live in a world that no longer needs or wants them. The book shows that they can still reach out and influence things, but also that they really aren’t much concerned by it. It is a stifling bleak book in an incredibly beautiful location.
The hints of mystery and the glimpses of things unseen are magnetic and fill you with questions. That they remain mysterious and an object of intense curiosity could be intentional, however, considering the slow pace with which the story moves, it would have greatly benefited from at least a cursory exploration of these things. This book, despite my interest in the subject, moves slowly. This may lend to the frigid, snowy setting of the novel but when there is so much information and world building that could have taken place it seems like a lost opportunity to me, at least in that respect. If you enjoyed the setting and tone of Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, then Stallo’s style will appeal to you, and is worthy of your time. If folklore is of interest to you, then Stallo provides an interesting exploration of it. But, if you are a fan of horror, and are looking for scares and dread, Stallo is not the book the jacket promises.