#1022: The Lake of the Dead (1942) by André Bjerke [trans. James D. Jenkins 2022]

Lake of the Dead

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Within the space of about a week last year, I received two emails from blogging friends about The Lake of the Dead (1942) by André Bjerke, voted in 2001 as the best Norwegian crime novel of all time and recently translated into English by James D. Jenkins.  The first email essentially said “Holy crap, you really need to read The Lake of the Dead!” while the second ran more along the lines of “Holy crap, whatever you do, don’t waste time on The Lake of the Dead!”…suffice to say, I was intrigued. Having now read it, I may side more with the latter perspective, but the book’s not without interest, especially in its gloomy atmospherics and intriguing first half.

Seeking inspiration for his next novel, crime writer Bernhard Borge learns that his friend Bjørn Werner has bought a hunting lodge out in the wilderness known as “Dead Man’s Cabin” which comes complete with a ghost story of its very own: 110 years ago, farmer Tore Gruvik killed his sister and her lover there before dumping their decapitated bodies into the nearby Blue Lake and then, driven mad with grief or possibly something more sinister, drowning himself in the same waters.

“[L]egend says a curse has hung over the cabin ever since Gruvik’s death. Anyone who stays within its four walls falls victim to that curse. They become possessed by Gruvik’s evil spirit — he comes to them at night, from within, like a terrible force sucking at their souls. He draws them to him, fills them with his own curse, his own madness; he sucks them all down with him into the lake.”

When Werner announces his intention to stay at the cabin in order to do some hunting, and when local policeman Einar Bråten responds to a summons from Werner apparently too late to prevent him committing suicide in the lake having shot his dog and left behind a rambling diary…well, the obvious thing is for Borge, his wife Sonja, and some of their friends — including Werner’s sister Liljan — to go out to the boondocks and investigate.

Oh, and there’s a killer on the loose, too because of course there is: a local man who, having murdered his two brothers, escaped into the surrounding forest and has evaded capture ever since.

“Let’s summarize: A lake that sucks people into it, an invisible phantom that screams and leaves footprints, a crazed double murderer on the loose, wandering around desperately in the dark of night. You might indeed say this is a fitting atmosphere for a psychoanalyst.”

As I say, the opening half of the novel, gradually stirring all these ingredients into the mix, is perhaps the more successful, and not just because of how much potential has yet to be fluffed. Bjerke does a good job playing with fairytale traditions, throwing in casual mentions of branches as “Medusa heads that suddenly sprang out of the darkness, grinned at me and then disappeared again” or “splaying through the pale green reeds like the fingers of a drowned troll”, and the burgeoning sense of unease is neatly sprinkled throughout, with references to a growing, giddy madness that fits the isolated location perfectly (“What happened to us during those days didn’t happen suddenly…”). Plus, Jenkins’ translation is gorgeous at times, no doubt showing Bjerke off at his very best:

The house was totally quiet. Only now and then there came a creaking from within the rotting walls, where the wood, as if in resignation, was yielding to the weight of age and collapsing in on itself. There was something melancholy about that sound; it was the sound of transience, the music of destruction.

The characters, too, are fun — or, rather, two of them are: the acerbic literary critic Gabriel Mørk who rallies against the pedestrian and is determined to see eldritch and fantastical explanations at every turn, and champion of the rational Harald Gran (“…a lawyer, which should be reason enough for the reader to lose all interest in him…”). The bickering of these two, occasionally with stultifying diversions into materialism and other such European concerns, is both entertaining…

“You have a fine and heroic way of tilting at windmills that really commands respect. And for once I almost agree with what you said.”

“You agree?” said Mørk, surprised. “Then I must have expressed myself badly.”

…and yet invested with a sense of friendship which the other, blander roles never come close to capturing. Indeed, apart from Borge’s occasional comments about the frailty and general uselessness of women (c.f., “There’s nothing women find more flattering than being despised” — almost parodical, but lacking any comeuppance or realisation) I’m not sure the others even have any traits, with Mørk and Gran representing the two sides of the coin which is constantly spinning in the air where the nature of the conclusion of this story is concerned — there seems no way that these events can be explained rationally, and yet surely they must — and everyone else just sort of there.

It’s in juggling this that Bjerke comes undone, because not only does his plot stall badly in the second half, he also seeks possession of all the cake in the world and a full belly at the same time, and the gruel he serves up to achieve this is flavourless. I actually don’t mind the fantastical elements of the conclusion, which are at least anticipated in the discussions of black magic and Pan and the like; what bothered me was how little I cared because of how boring the story had become. Each chapter seems to be built around one event which is then discussed at great length…then the chapter ends and the format repeats, and then we’re told what happened and I found it difficult to get too upset or be too delighted because I’d lost interest 80 pages back.

As an experiment from 1908, The Lake of the Dead would be fascinating; written as it was over three decades later, it’s just a bit too insipid to compel: built on leaky reasoning, dragging out stock situations well past the point of interest, and really paying only lip service to two genres it cannot choose between; its dreamy nature might be deliberate, but it comes across more as ill-focussed and in need of another five drafts before people are asked to pay for it. When a book with this much promise is memorable because of just how forgettable it all turns out to be, something has gone very wrong.

4 thoughts on “#1022: The Lake of the Dead (1942) by André Bjerke [trans. James D. Jenkins 2022]

  1. Yeah, I reviewed this one last July and was marginally more positive about it than you with the second-half and ending not living up to the story’s opening act. I expected the solution to reveal everything that happened at the cabin was staged and the supernatural element not coming into play until the very end by dragging the murderer to the bottom of the lake. It would have been a fun turn on the murderer who uses the supernatural to dress up their crimes and made for a much better ending. Not a book I would unhesitatingly recommend to people like us.

    As an experiment from 1908, The Lake of the Dead would be fascinating; written as it was over three decades later, it’s just a bit too insipid to compel

    To be fair to Bjerke, the introduction did note that Norway is one of the few Western countries with no tradition in horror fiction. So it might as well have been published in 1908.


    • Yes, I’ve just read your review an can’t say I disagree with any of it. I actually didn’t read Jenkins’ introduction — I typically leave them until last, and was so uninspired by the end of this that I couldn’t face any more of it — but maybe I’ll go back and see what he has to say. His translation really is superb, so no doubt he has some great insights to offer.


    • I think the fact that it sounds so amazing is perhaps part of the problem; Bjerke would have to be Hake Talbot and John Sladek rolled into one to make that much potential pay off.

      With a little less awesome in its setup, the muted payoff might not feel like such a shrug, y’know? The riposte to this is that at least Bjerke was aiming for something ambitious. but, well, what’s here is so lacking in pacing, excitement, and event that I’d question if he really was.


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