AS ESSENTIAL a feature in Nordic folklore as reindeer, ice, and vast expanses of snow, illuminated in perpetual summer or obscured under the dark cap of winter, is a surprisingly diverse community of trolls. Some, like the villain of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” live under bridges, waiting for inattentive travelers to turn into meals, while others, such as those from the Faroe islands, lure humans into their dens to be slaves or worse. One of the richest sources of troll mythology comes from the arctic region of Lapland, home to the Sámi people, Scandinavia’s only recognized indigenous tribe. In their stories frequently appears a breed of troll called the stallo, unnaturally large, malicious creatures described as half-devil. The ancient Sámi named many features of their landscape after the stallo — a magic mountain, various lakes, a waterfall — as if these trolls were as elemental, and as inhuman, as the rock and the water themselves.

Like most trolls, the stallo are defined by their hunger. Storytellers call them “man-eaters” and “child-nappers,” with tales abounding of hapless Sámi wanderers who stumble into stallo camps only to be cooked up and served as dinner. In his 1910 anthropological study An Account of the Sámi, Johan Turi writes that the stallo’s tendency to eat up their own wives and children means that their numbers are forever dwindling. In order to replenish their tribe, they regularly abduct human children. Even though these children are not expected to return, Sámi stories do occasionally explain away strange behavior by stating that a person has stallo blood. Turi, while claiming that “nowadays, the stallo are almost all gone,” admitted that it was still possible to find a Laplander who was related to them. “Where a stallo has married a Sámi girl,” he writes, “you find half-stallo, half-human creatures who differ a little from other people in nature and appearance.”[1] 

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the stallo is their magical power. Turi relates a story about a troll woman who possessed an enchanted iron pipe; in moments of danger, she would turn this pipe upon her enemies, emptying them of their life-energy and leaving them dead-eyed shells. Their souls drained from their bodies, these dull not-quite-ghosts were walking reminders of the risk of inciting the stallo’s wrath. 

Nothing, however, is without its opposite or weakness, and trolls across Scandinavia were thought to have one natural enemy. They feared lightning, so much so that the advent of electricity was credited with banishing them from the north. According to legend, the trolls fled from the glowing land and the light of industry and progress — but why? To understand, we must read trolls not as characters in children’s stories, but as archetypal figures, representations of unconscious psychological forces. From this perspective, a troll is not a troll but a symbol of the terrifying and mysterious, an image of all of the cruel, irrational impulses we attempt to restrain in civilized life. Such symbols perform an essential psychic function: just as that other monster, Medusa, could not be looked at directly, so too does our capacity for evil prove overwhelming when confronted straight on. Like Perseus, we require a mirror, some object to mediate between the conscious mind and the most unpleasant part of the unconscious. The troll serves as one possible mediator, and if it flees from lightning, it is because we seek to blind our unconscious with the light of reason. This may work for a time, but — as the persistence of the troll symbol itself evidences — rationality is no match for the dark.

“Drive out nature with a pitchfork and she always turns up again,” said the poet Horace, and though they are creatures of fantasy, trolls belong to nature. They were not driven out of the imagination by electricity, and in Stefan Spjut’s recent novel The Shapeshifters, they were not even driven out of the land. Called Stallo in its original Swedish, The Shapeshifters (translated into English by Susan Beard) sets the giants of Lapland loose into the modern world with all their old brutality and instinct for kidnapping. The plot is grounded in the disappearance of two children, a quarter of a century apart, which sparks a conflict between those who seek to uncover the stallo and those who work to protect them. To their advantage, the trolls have been granted the additional power of shapeshifting by their author, so that at times they appear as the huge, roughly human “half-devils” described by the Sámi, and at other times as bears, rabbits, or lemmings.

In the book’s atmospheric prologue, the stallos’ first victim, a little boy named Magnus, is camping with his mother in a remote corner of the Swedish woods. One day, he goes for a walk alone and crosses a footbridge — that threshold, in so many fairy tales, to the world of magic or disaster — and shortly afterward is abducted from his cabin. His mother claims that he was stolen by a giant, and neither Magnus nor the perpetrator is ever found. Twenty-six years later, in 2004, a young woman captures a troll on film, and her photograph soon becomes the only piece of evidence in the case of another missing child, a four-year-old called Mattias. Convinced that trolls are responsible for the boy’s disappearance, Susso, the photographer, begins an investigation, tracking signs of the stallo across Sweden in the dead of winter.

Susso is the novel’s detective, though a less successful one than the standard noir model. Her discoveries amount to little more than the fact that the stallo operate on a superhuman scale; their agenda proves as impersonal as it is inscrutable, and we increasingly sense that Susso has been dropped into events that ultimately have nothing to do with her. Moreover, her fate by the end of the novel — let alone her victory — remains far from certain. In the course of her travels, Susso picks up a small stallo of her own, a so-called squirrelshifter, who offers her information and appears sympathetic, even confronting one of its own in an attempt to save Susso’s life. But Spjut implies that the squirrel takes as much as he gives: Susso’s personality, though never especially well-defined, has shifted noticeably by the book’s final scene, the squirrel’s influence over her apparently secure. The Shapeshifters ends so abruptly, and so disquietingly, as to make it feel more like the first part of a series than a standalone novel. To my knowledge, however, no second part is forthcoming.

Susso’s journey is only half of the story. Her activities quickly attract the eye of the trolls and their sinister human protectors, characters who receive as much attention as the detective herself. The main character of the stallo-keeper plot, Seved, emerges as Susso’s double and foil, with the book regularly alternating between their story lines. Seved and his companions live on an isolated farm in Lapland, their days revolving around constant, wary negotiations with danger — the danger of death, of exposure, and of the numerous trolls that live with them.

It is through Seved’s story that Spjut most clearly outlines his conception of evil. If the stallo, as a uniquely Scandinavian monster, reflects not only an individual but also a collective dark side, then the evil Spjut sees in contemporary Sweden works below the surface. The two types of trolls housed at Seved’s farm — the malevolent “old-timers” and the smaller shifters — do commit several murders, but generally prefer more subtle forms of violence. They are agents of emptiness and absence: they make children disappear, they sow doubt and apathy, they bleed human bodies of their souls like their ancestress did with the iron pipe. Appropriately, their human keepers are also marked by what they lack. Seved’s life is devoid of love or warmth; cold, calculating, and secretive, his grim family expresses the evil of the trolls in a less potent, but more conscious, form.

As the novel opens, the stallo are growing restless. They desire the presence of children, so in order to appease them, Seved’s companions instruct him to kidnap the little boy, Mattias. Unlike those from the Sámi myths, Spjut’s trolls do not want the child for food or breeding, but rather for spiritual nourishment, as if, out of some inarticulate desire for balance, the wicked are drawn to the innocent as light is to dark. All that the trolls demand of Mattias is that he play for a few hours a day within their sight or hearing. Perhaps an American author would have come up with some more horrifying fate for the boy, some fouler purpose to which the stallo might put him, but the cruelty that befalls Mattias after his abduction is of a painfully ordinary kind. Though he is given candy and toys, though no one seeks to harm him physically, Mattias is made to suffer. His conversations with Lennart, the most ruthless of the stallo-keepers, are utterly heartbreaking:

‘Your parents don’t want you anymore,’ Lennart said calmly.
‘Yes, they do!’
‘I know it’s hard to understand. It’s not really that they don’t want you…. have you heard your parents talk about any problems lately?’
The boy did not know.
‘But they have been arguing, haven’t they?’
They had.
‘And what have they been arguing about?’
‘Money.’
‘Exactly. Your parents can’t afford to look after you’ […]

The kidnappers are all too convincing in their manipulation of the poor child, and even in their choice of prey. Mattias and Magnus are exceptions among abducted children in that they are native Swedes; the stallo-keepers usually target immigrant children because less of a fuss is made over their disappearance. The media eagerly forget the tragedy of a missing brown child, they say. Spjut goes out of his way to point out these nasty social realities, encouraging the predictable suspicion that the real monsters are not the beasts of legend, but our fellow humans. Turning to etymology for support, he writes:

‘Monster’ did not mean ‘beast’, it meant ‘warning’, from the Latin root ‘monere’. It could also be interpreted as ‘reminder’. The word ‘monument’ had the same origins.
But what was it a reminder of?
That everyone could be a monster?

This infuriatingly banal conclusion betrays either a serious lack of imagination or a misunderstanding of the nature of evil. Of course everyone could be a monster — indeed, the lesson of mythology (a tradition Spjut borrows from significantly) is that everyone already is. Or, more fairly, everyone is already part monster; a troll, remember, is only an aspect of ourselves — “the ugliest part” of us, as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it in one of her essays, “but not the weakest.” In literature as much as in life, the relevant question is not whether everyone could be a monster, but under what circumstances could everyone’s monster be released? What will make a human, like the stallo themselves, shapeshift? Because, though they cannot take animal form, the characters in Spjut’s novel are already shifters: stolen children are expected to shift into new identities, adults turn hard-boiled or find themselves altered under the influence of the telepathic lemming- or squirrelshifters.

The second, and far more difficult, question is: under what circumstances can a person who has become a monster return to their human form? This, for example, is Seved’s task: having been forced to live as something less than human, he must conquer his inner troll and slowly change back into a person. (Spjut illustrates the difficulty of this task through the trolls themselves: the stallo are able to become animals almost instantaneously, but take several hours or even days to revert to human form — clearly, it is easier to be an animal than to be a person.) Seved’s story could have been one of redemption, but Spjut denies him resolution: though the reader may not be wrong to feel a cautious optimism in his case, Seved’s fate, like Susso’s, remains very much in the dark.

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The Shapeshifters could have made for a very original work of fantasy. Unfortunately, Spjut does not complete most of what he undertakes, leaving the novel feeling well conceived but only half executed. The source of the trouble, I believe, lies in Spjut’s relationship to the stallo. He simultaneously over- and underestimates them, so that within the novel, they are asked to do both too much and too little.

The trolls are the most interesting thing about the book, and that is a problem. Without them, The Shapeshifters would be a run-of-the-mill thriller, so Spjut counts on the supernatural elements to give his novel an inventive — as well as a literary — edge. He expects the stallo to carry the story, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of appeal, and as a result, he neglects other aspects of the book, most notably character. Susso, for instance, is a detective, but she could have been a hero. Readers demand a certain balance between good and evil: when presented with a fairy-tale monster, we would like to see a monster-slayer, or at least a monster-outsmarter. But while Susso does to an extent conform to the hero mold — by being cast as young, brave, and ripe for self-actualization, or by accepting the call to adventure that arrives in the form of her troll photograph — she is denied the hero’s crucial opportunity to sacrifice herself and thereby meaningfully choose her path. Her growth as a hero is therefore fatally stunted: she changes over the course of the novel, but only because something is taken from her, not because she willingly gives it up in favor of something more difficult and valuable. By robbing Susso of her agency, Spjut has also compromised his readers’ commitment to her — we follow Susso because we have to, not because we understand or believe in her journey.

Spjut is not remiss only in regard to his characters’ emotional complexity, however. Contrary to the promise of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s blurb, the prose does not “sparkle on the page.” The writing is serviceable, but rarely more, taking a few alarmingly clunky turns toward the end of the book. When being chased by two huge, enraged trolls in bear form, for example, one character says, “After that I floored it because naturally they came after us, and this time they were running, so Randolf informed me.” The sentence is so stilted that it completely deflates the drama of the scene, and so formal as to seem almost comical (would anyone really “inform” someone that they’re being chased by trolls?).

I suspect the blame for such awkwardness lies more with the author than with his translator, Susan Beard. The more the novel progresses, the more Spjut sacrifices craft for suspense — that is a structural feature of the novel, not a product of translation. In the prologue, Spjut manages to achieve an indiscernibility of the natural and supernatural that not only reads well but also produces a pleasurable amount of tension; regrettably, this sensitivity collapses in later chapters. Beard should not be held responsible for Spjut’s overindulgence in what might be called “cinematic” techniques of novel-writing (frequent paragraph breaks, short scenes, cliffhanger endings, etc.), nor for his recourse to cliché (“We keep that to ourselves. / At least, we did for many years. / It was my daughter Susso who changed everything”).

In these ways, then, Spjut asks too much of his trolls, seeming to believe that their presence will make up for his laziness in style and character development. But there is also a fundamental way in which he asks too little of them. Trolls, as I attempted to show above, contain extraordinary symbolic potential; properly deployed, they may be the mirror through which we view part of ourselves. Within the realm of folklore, they serve this purpose effectively, but they cannot serve it when, as in The Shapeshifters, they are engaged mostly for their thrill value. It would, of course, be unfair to insist that every novel that includes fantastical elements adhere to the model of myth, and my intention is not to criticize The Shapeshifters for failing to become what it never set out to be. I merely wish to point out that any author who employs the figures of fantasy or fairy tale has already made a psychological choice. Readers do not approach a story about trolls the way they approach one about serial killers or aliens — by choosing trolls or other symbolically rich figures, the author implicitly encourages a nonliteral reading. The unique strength of fantasy as a genre is to support and reward such a reading; this is why literary fantasy, when done well, has such impressive staying power. The language of fantasy, as many writers including Le Guin, have noted, is identical to the “language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype,” and can therefore tap into the very inexhaustibility of psychic experience, giving metaphorical form to that which would otherwise be inexpressible. Spjut certainly has the right not to be interested in the life of the unconscious, except that, in his gestures toward mythology, he implies that he is interested. He simply refuses to fully commit to a symbolic language, and thereby loses out on its power. Spjut repeatedly goes halfway, and then stops, setting up potentially archetypal figures and situations (Susso on the hero quest, Seved’s self-awakening, etc.) only to become distracted by the tropes of thrillers — car chases; sulky, perpetually smoking (or, in this case, snus-chewing) characters unwilling to talk about their feelings; etc. Granted, these tropes contribute to his novel’s sense of suspense, but they also prevent it from resonating beyond the level of entertainment. Spjut’s storytelling ambitions, like his trolls, are in the end too small, and so The Shapeshifters falls short of what it could have been.

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[1] This quote is taken from the 1913 German edition of Turi’s work; my translation.

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Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity for Music & Literature.