Friday, May 14, 2021

The Lost Village, by Camilla Sten

  read in March 

Minotaur, 2021
originally published 2019
translated by Alexandra Fleming
340 pp


The first US edition of this novel came out earlier this year, and when it came to my door  I was beyond excited to get into it. It was that blurb that got me, you know, the one that says that The Lost Village is a "disturbing thriller" in which "The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar."  I've never actually watched Midsommar (horror movies just aren't my bailiwick) but I had read several synopses and read through a number of watcher reviews so I sort of had an idea of what I should look for;  The Blair Witch Project I saw long ago. Oh, I thought, this sounds sooo good; the description inside the dustjacket cover made me feel like I had the perfect escape novel in my hands and I seriously needed that at the moment.  Later that night it was off to bed, nightstand light off, booklight on, doggie curled up at my feet;  ready to be simultaneously disturbed and thrilled.  

The first chapter sucked me right in.  It's August, 1959, and two policemen are making their way through the streets of Silvertjärn, "a village in the middle of the forest."  One of the two men noted that Silvertjärn  seemed like a
"pleasant, unassuming place, with dainty houses in even rows, a river meandering through the center and a white stuccco church spire that soared up over the rooftops, gleaming in the August sunshine,"
 But something is off -- there are no people anywhere to be seen.  At the village square, one of the men feels a "surge of relief" when he finally spots someone, but the relief is short lived when they discover a body tied to a pole, blood coagulating at its feet. Amid the silence that permeates the place, they hear the cries of a baby through an open window at the school.  Flash forward to the present, and Alice Lindstedt has decided to put together a six-episode documentary about Silvertjärn. It seems that her grandmother had once lived there, and Alice had grown up hearing stories about the village. Her grandmother, as Alice notes, "had already left Silvertjärn when it happened, but her parents and younger sister were among the missing."  Her documentary aims to answer the question of how the village could "just drop off the face of the earth."  The plan is for Alice and her small crew to head to Silvertjärn to "explore the village and film some test shots," hoping to entice potential backers with what footage they get; she also hopes to "delve into" a number of possibilities,  
"everything from a gas leak that supposedly caused mass hysteria and delirium, to an ancient Sami curse."

Arriving in the village, Alice and colleagues set up a base camp in the main square, and it isn't long (as the dustjacket cover blurb reveals)  until strange things begin happening. One of the group sees a figure in the darkness. Another is badly injured.  Alice starts hearing things that shouldn't be there, someone sabotages the equipment, the crew start to disappear.  As all of this is going on, Silvertjärn's past is slowly being revealed in chapters labeled "Then." 

All of this should have been right up my mystery/supernatural fiction-loving brain, but sadly, for me it wasn't.  It wasn't too long in before I decided that what's going on in the present has been the stuff of  any number of movies I've seen, so I had more than an inkling of where this all was headed. Honestly,  what stopped me from throwing in the towel here was that I needed to know what had happened in 1959.  There was no Blair Witch stuff going on here -- the little bit of film Alice had managed to shoot didn't amount  to a hill of beans. And the Midsommar connection is absolutely tenuous at best but you have to squint through the 1959 story to find it;  as she writes it, it had more of a NXIVM sort of feel. Even there though, my interest started waning, and I was neither thrilled nor disturbed.  When the ending arrived, well, let's just say the eyerolls came out in full.  I really wish I would give into my instincts and tell you why, but I won't.  Let's also just say that it was so over the top as to be completely unbelievable. 

This is another case in which the book and I did not get along.  First of all, I'm not sure what the author was trying to do here.  Is this meant to be a crime/thriller novel or is it a supernatural story?  Either way it just didn't work. It's like she tried to combine the two, which can be done and can be done well, but not here.  Second, that ending was just so far out there and raises a hell of a lot more questions than answers.  Finally, as I was reading it, I just felt like the author wrote this with an eye to a film or a tv series (complete with tearful reconciliation scene in the midst of all of the mayhem) and lo and behold, after I finished I discovered that pre-publication,  "tv and film rights have already been sold."  On the flip side, this is also another case in which the book seemed to have been well loved by everyone else, with a 4 average star rating on Amazon and high praise from readers at Goodreads and several reader  blogs.  I really really wanted to like it, but it's just not for me.  

Maybe she should have gone with the ancient Sami curse...