Why this Icelandic Ghost Story gives Chills

Iceland’s version of ‘cozy’.

To start: Iceland is an epic, humbling place.
This is terrain carved of fire and ice. It is one of the newest physical locations on the planet. It has multiple volcanoes, multiple glaciers, and not a whole lot else in-between. It’s awe inspiring to see, but makes for in an incredibly challenging environment to foster life.  

Most of this land is made up of lava fields covered in lichen. The only native inhabitants are (adorable) Arctic foxes.

About a thousand years ago, the first and only humans hardcore enough to match this land, the Vikings, set up shop. When people make faces about Icelandic traditional food (smoked puffin, fermented shark, preserved whale), they lack the historic context of “Okay, smartass, look around this desolate landscape and YOU come up with dinner plans.”

Iceland is an impressively remote place. The island is a little smaller than the state of Ohio but has only has a population about the size of Cincinnati. (I’m a native Ohioan, so I am indeed going to force you to measure things via my home state.) To put it a different way: there are about 3.3 people every 100,000 sq km in Iceland. If you are looking for a place so remote that you could scream and nothing but rocks (and some amused sheep) could hear you? This is THE place for you.

Iceland is so dangerous that there are regular travel articles about all the ways Iceland can kill you. Falling rocks, volcanic geysers, freezing to death, and wind blowing you off a cliff are just a few ways you could be wiped off the face of this prehistoric wonderland.

Even their horses will fuck you up.

Oh and bonus: half the year it is dark 100% of the day, and the other half it is light 100% of the day. What could make for a better recipe for madness? Speaking of which: check out these things called necropants at your leisure, dear reader.

The point being: horror is deeply effective when tied to a place. And when reading a horror story from a different country, the context of that place is even more important to read up on. For example: 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish at least one book in their lifetimes. So more than almost anywhere on earth, if you want to know this place, reading their books is a good way to do it.

And here is what I learned: WOW do these hotdog-eating, elf-believing, rainbow-loving people have some depressing prose to share with us all.

I present to you the following lists of recommended Icelandic fiction:

“Herra Björnsson is an eighty-year-old woman living alone in a garage in rural Reykjavík. Her only company is her computer and an old grenade that has followed her since World War II. As she waits for her death….”
(‘The Woman at 1000 Degrees’)
“…in his attempt to free himself from the bondage of debt on a farm he can finally call his own, leads his family through a life of hardship, brutality, oppression and tragedy.”
(‘Independent People’)
“Jónas is deeply unhappy …  Not knowing how to change things for the better, he decides to buy a one-way ticket to an unnamed war-ravaged country to end his life.”
(‘Hotel Silence’)

They seriously do love rainbows and gay rights.

I paint with broad strokes here for the sake of entertainment. Could you imagine how other countries would judge the US based on our ‘essential’ literature? “So…everything is about race or nothing is about race. Got it. Also being rich makes people sad or whatever.”  

But these are also not inaccurate summaries of what are considered quintessential modern Icelandic literature. Having read some of popular Icelandic books (‘The Blue Fox’, ‘Hotel Silence’, and today’s subject ‘I Remember You’), it seems a common theme to embrace a sort of desolation of the soul along with dark humor and a deep sense of human connection.

The Icelandic title just looks so much more badass.

‘I Remember You’ (Icelandic: ‘Ég man þig’) by Yrsa Sigurdarsdottir is a book found on many Icelandic lit recommendation lists. It is heartily recommended if you want to white knuckle your way through 300-odd pages of terror.

Shout out to Sigurdarsdottir for shining as an excellent lady horror-writer. Her narrative, her use of dread, her ability to make your skin crawl is impressive. She already deserves to be remembered alongside the greats like Shirley Jackson. Sigurdarsdottir is classified typically as a ‘crime writer’—but ‘I Remember You’, while it has elements of solving mysteries, is solidly in the horror genre with its morbidity, terror inducing prose, and supernatural elements. 

The book follows two separate storylines, each its own chilling journey of staring wide-eyed at the pages and quietly saying to yourself “What the fuck…” and “Oh no.  Oh NO. Oh nooooooo.”

In one storyline, we follow a psychiatrist, Freyr, after he is consulted to assess a vandalism incident at a local preschool. The preschool triggers sad memories of the psychiatrist’s young son, who disappeared three years earlier. Freyr starts trying to unwind the mystery of the vandalism and its link to an eerily identical incident decades earlier. His journey crosses over from one of detached skepticism onto an ever-darkening road of mystery, death, and whispers in the dark.           

In the other storyline, we follow three young people who travel to a remote island to fix up an old house. AKA: three dead meat make a bad decision and get the poop scared out of them. This story opens with intrepid yuppies Gardur, Katrin, and Lif being brought to a remote island at the start of fall–as in, when it’s about to get Extra Cold and Hella Dark.  
Now remember, this is Iceland. And if a place in Iceland is referred to as ‘remote’, it is forsaken as fuck.

Every part of this idea is so stupid that the skipper boating them over basically keeps asking, “Are you sure? This is incredibly stupid, you get that right? You sure you wanna do this? Do you understand this is a really bad plan? Like IMPRESSIVELY bad?”

Our intrepid heroes confidently (stupidly) insist that they totally know what they’re doing and everything will be dandy. Spoiler: No.

If our three intrepid heroes need help? If something goes wrong? If someone gets hurt? If they want to escape a malevolent presence not of this world? They’re fucked.  Spoiler: YEP they sure are!

It starts with seeing shadows out of the corners of their eyes. Then hearing creaks and thumps. And then wet footprints coming from nowhere. Our intrepid yuppies try their darnedest to convince themselves it’s just them being tired from fixing up the house.* But then our intrepid, isolated heroes start finding things. Things that chill them to the bone. 

Oh, and by the by, the previous owner disappeared mysteriously, which intrepid hero/jackass Gardur doesn’t bring up until they’re all settled and scared out of their minds.

And soon our intrepid heroes start to realize that although they should be the only living things on this island, they are very much not alone…

  *If you want the Icelandic people summed up, I found it in this book. After spending a day ripping up floorboards or painting rooms, the characters would say “Well, I need to relax, wanna go for a hike?” 

Hint: the inhuman presence is not the Easter Bunny.

The book’s dual plots perfectly intertwine their respective mysteries and unresolved endings. Much like Japanese horror films featuring vengeful ghosts (‘Ju-on’, ‘The Ring’), ‘I Remember You’ wields the wraith/haunting that cannot be appeased. There is a ghost, it is angry, and it isn’t letting go, even when it gets its icy talons around your neck.

Horror, to me, is about when you lose control. If every ghost can be appeased or banished tidily, then the fear rapidly dissipates. It makes the unknown too tangible to be frightening anymore. ‘I Remember You’ hits that mark perfectly, where it gives you some answers, but demonstrates that an answer isn’t the same as a solution.

The gift of this novel is how it draws out dread. Moments when you know something bad is going to happen by the end of the paragraph or the page, but you just don’t know what or how bad it’s going to be.

You won’t want to be alone reading this book, and definitely not alone in the dark.

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