Books: The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

I remember seeing a bunch of other book reviewers over the past year or so discussing Camilla Sten’s acclaimed 2021 novel The Lost Village, and although reviews seemed mixed (but tending toward the positive), the premise sounded intriguing, so I finally sat my ass down and read the thing. And I ended up liking it quite a lot, though I can totally understand some of the criticisms too.

Camilla Sten is a Swedish author, the daughter of crime writer Viveca Sten; the two have collaborated on some YA thrillers, as a matter of fact. The Lost Village was first published as Staden in Sweden in 2019 and has since gone on to be translated into numerous languages; it’s also been optioned for film, which doesn’t surprise me one bit, as the story is very cinematic and would probably make a really creepy movie or miniseries. Alexandra Fleming, incidentally, did the English translation.

In most of its marketing, the novel has been pitched as The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar, which is sort of accurate as far as it goes, but also sells the story somewhat short, in my opinion. I’ve also seen it called a crime thriller more than a horror novel, which I don’t completely get because to me this seemed to sit very comfortably in the horror camp, way more so than the crime genre. But hey, what the hell do I know; maybe calling something a thriller attracts a much wider swath of readers than calling it a horror story would. This is totally a horror story, though, at least in my estimation. I have to say too that it deals with one of my favorite tropes in fiction: an unexplained mass disappearance.

The Lost Village essentially switches back and forth from the present-day timeline to an account of the events leading up to the central disappearance back in 1959. In the present, our main protagonist is Alice, a twenty-nine-year-old filmmaker who has had some mental health setbacks in the past, but who is finally on the cusp of realizing her dream project.

Ever since she was a child, she’s been obsessed with the mystery behind the village of Silvertjärn, from which nearly 900 residents suddenly vanished one day, never to be found. When relatives outside the village became worried and went there to see what had happened, they found abandoned houses, looking for all the world as though everyone had simply stepped out for a moment and never returned.

Well, that’s not all they found. There was also a dead woman, tied to a pole in the town square and stoned to death. And there was a squalling baby girl, discovered in the empty school, whose parentage was unknown. But there was no other clue as to where everyone else had gone or what exactly had taken place.

Back in the 1950s, Alice’s grandmother Margareta lived in this remote but pleasant mining village with her parents and sister. Margareta eventually married and moved away from the small town to live in Stockholm, but after she left, a dark cloud seemed to descend over Silvertjärn. The mine closed down, forcing everyone out of work, and widespread poverty led to some townsfolk moving away, and caused increasing desperation among those unable to.

Margareta received letters for a time from her young sister Aina, who chronicled the arrival of a charismatic newcomer in town. Not long after, however, the letters stopped coming.

Over the years, Margareta kept everything relating to the mysterious tragedy in Silvertjärn, and when she died, she gifted this treasure trove of historical information to Alice, who finally got funding from a backer and friend of hers named Max to make a documentary about the incident.

Coming along with her on this journey to the abandoned town is the aforementioned Max, who is putting forward some of the money for the project; Emmy, an experienced director who was also Alice’s former best friend before a tragic falling out some time before; Tone, a photographer and newer friend of Alice’s, who also has some personal ties to Silvertjärn; and Robert, Emmy’s boyfriend and also a guy familiar with the more technical aspects of filmmaking.

This preliminary trip to the lost village is set to last for five days; they’re not making the entire documentary this time around, but they are hoping to capture some footage and photos that will help them put together a promotional package and trailer that will get them more investors. Alice, perhaps naively, is also hoping that she might come across some clue as to the residents’ fate that has been overlooked for the past sixty years.

Almost from the minute they arrive, though, things are unsettling. Silvertjärn is indeed as creepy as its reputation would suggest, and Alice is initially excited by the eerie visuals they’re capturing. Indeed, the prose here is very evocative, as I could actually picture this forgotten, empty village rotting away under the Swedish sun, holding in its secrets.

But tensions soon start to mount, particularly between Alice and Emmy, who have unresolved issues from their past friendship. Tone also starts acting somewhat strangely as the days go by, and what’s worse, apparently paranormal things begin to manifest: ambiguous figures appearing around the edges of their camp, strange noises over their walkie-talkies, footsteps in the abandoned buildings. Alice finds disquieting clues stashed in a few of the houses: an unfinished letter, some photographs, a written sermon, some spooky child’s drawings. At about the halfway point of the book, something rather big and unexpected happens, which plunges the hapless film crew into survival mode.

Meanwhile, the events of 1959 are also unspooled little by little, as we the readers are slowly let in on the series of events leading up to the entire town of Silvertjärn seemingly vanishing off the face of the earth.

As I said, I enjoyed this novel a great deal; it was eerie and compelling, and got me invested in its mystery pretty much from the first paragraph. The buildup of the intrigue was really well done, and my eyeballs were just latched to the page as I waited to see what the resolution was going to be. That said, I’m not sure the solution to the mystery was all that believable, and hence was slightly disappointing, but overall I didn’t mind it, mainly because the rest of the book was so good and so immersive. I love the concept of a disappearing town full of people, and in general, I really liked the direction Camilla Sten went in with it.

I’d recommend The Lost Village to anyone looking for an atmospheric, spooky read in the mainstream horror vein; the book isn’t overly gory, and seemed pretty accessible to a wider audience that maybe doesn’t read much horror, so if you’re just a casual fan you’ll probably really dig it; more seasoned horror hounds might find it a bit overly familiar, as it borrows from lots of other tropes, but it’s exceptionally well put together, and will probably be really successful if it ever gets adapted to film.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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