The Shapeshifters

The Shapeshifters

by Stefan Spjut


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The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

“A fantastic novel in every sense of the word…not only because Spjut has accomplished the masterstroke of writing convincingly about the existence of trolls and other mythical creatures in the Nordic forests, but also because all this unfolds in a language that captures the everyday reality we know so well, with such precision and exquisite style that the words seem to sparkle on the page.”
—Karl Ove Knausgård

"A fun, cunning crime thriller...If you enjoy the novels of Michael Koryta or Tana French's The Secret might eat up The Shapeshifters."
Chicago Tribune
Summer 1978. A young boy disappears without a trace from a summer cabin. His mother claims he was carried away by a giant. He is never found.
Twenty-five years later, another child goes missing. This time there’s a lead, a single photograph taken by Susso Myrén. She’s devoted her life to the search for trolls, legendary giants known as stallo who can control human thoughts and assume animal form. Convinced that the trolls are real, she follows the trail of missing children to northern Sweden. But humans, some part stallo themselves, have been watching over the creatures for generations, and this hidden society of protectors won’t hesitate to close its deadly ranks.
Mixing folklore and history, suspense and the supernatural, The Shapeshifters is an extraordinary journey into a frozen land where myth bleeds into reality.
“Spjut turns Scandinavian mythology upside down in a shades-of-gray world built for lovers of fantastical suspense.” —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594773801
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/07/2015
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 1,191,810
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.53(d)

About the Author

STEFAN SPJUT has worked as a literary critic for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and the culture editor for Norbottens-Kuriren. Stallo is his second novel, the first to be available in English.

Read an Excerpt


The worm glued to the tarmac is as long as a snake. No, longer. It reaches all the way to the grass verge beside the main road. The boy's eyes follow the slimy ribbon and notice that it stretches across the ditch and curls into the belly of a grey animal. A badger. Dead but still looking. Its eyes are black glass and one paw has stiffened in a wave.

The car door opens and his mother calls, but he cannot tear himself away from the animal.

Then she gets out.

She stands beside the boy. Wrinkles her nose so her glasses ride up.

'It's been run over,' she says.

'But why does it look like that?'

'Those are intestines. A bird pulled them out. Or some other animal.'

He wants to know which bird, which animal.

'Come on now,' she says.

'But I haven't peed yet.'

'Well, do it then.'

He presses his cheek against the window but the pine trees are so tall he can hardly see where they end. His knees are gripping a large Fanta bottle and from time to time he blows into the neck. The glass is warm and the last few mouthfuls have also been warm. They have been driving for almost three hours, and he has never travelled for such a long time in a car before.

When they stop he does not understand that they have arrived, because they are right in the middle of the forest. There is no sign of a cabin. Only trees.

'Are we there?' he asks.

His mother sits motionless for a while, lost in her thoughts, before pulling the key from the ignition and climbing out. She opens his door.

It is as if the mosquitoes have been waiting for him. They come from all directions and land on him in such a teeming mass that his legs look mottled. He makes no attempt to brush them away but instead stiffens and lets out a plaintive yell.

His mother heaves the bag onto the bonnet and finds a bath towel, which she wraps around him like a cape. After she has tied it round his neck she starts running, with the bag in one hand and the plastic carrier from the supermarket in the other. She leaves a kind of furrow behind her in the long grass. She is wearing a short-sleeved top in green velour, and an oblong-shaped sweat mark is spreading out between her shoulder blades. Her flared jeans flap around her ankles.

He follows after her and the little figures in his backpack rattle inside their plastic box. He holds the shoulder strap with one hand and uses the other to grip the towel to stop it from flying away. Running is difficult and soon his mother's back disappears in the dense greenery in front of him. He calls out to her to wait, but she carries on, calling over her shoulder for him to hurry up.

The ferns have formed tight, thick clumps, and beyond them the fir trees tower above the pitch-black ground. All around him the spiky stalks of the grass hum and tick with insects, and his cloak flies behind him as he runs.

The forest is a silent reflection on the windowpanes. Pine cones, thin twigs and drifts of old pine needles are piled up on the metal roof. The fir trees sway high above against a sky that has grown pale.

His mother has reached the door. Pulling a face she leans forwards, feeling under a windowsill.

'Oh, please,' she says, bending up the metal and forcing her fingers underneath while blowing puffs of air to each side to keep the mosquitoes away.

The boy has untied the towel and pulled it up over his head like a headscarf. He spins around in pirouettes and his trainers thump on the veranda. Grass has grown up in places between the planks, and he stamps it under his feet. There is an ashtray filled with water resting on the wooden railing, and a fly is floating on the surface. Or could it be a beetle? All he can see are crooked legs sticking out. But when he looks closer he notices more insects. The water is thick with them. It looks like a disgusting soup, the kind witches make.

His mother has knelt down and is trying to look under the windowsill.

'I don't believe it,' she says.

Then she starts hunting in the grass below the window.

The boy watches her for a while. Then he tries the door handle.

'Mummy,' he says, 'it's open.'

She pushes him in front of her, lifts in their luggage and slams the door shut behind them. The boy stands in front of a wall hanging of dark swirls and hard, staring eyes and he wonders what it is supposed to be. An owl? Then he gets another push from the hand holding the plastic bag. The bag is cold from the milk cartons at the bottom.

'In with you then!'

The words leave his mother's mouth and seem to fasten in something inside, a web left behind by the silence that has reigned for so long inside the cabin. The boy feels it and is hesitant. He would prefer to stand where he is for a while.

'Go in!'

With wary eyes he walks inside and looks around.

The walls are covered in unpainted pine panelling below and woven wallpaper above. Small pictures and copper pans hang here and there. Through a door he sees a bunk bed with fringed bedspreads. He peers in. The room is very small. Beside the bed is a stool with a book on top of it. Outside the window stands a tree. Its pointed leaves almost touch the windowpane.

He lays his rucksack on the kitchen table, unzips it and takes out the plastic box. It is an old ice cream container with BIG PACK written on a wrinkled label on the lid. Carefully he pulls off the elastic band because he knows it might snap, then tips the figures out onto the table. The ones that came free in boxes of biscuits are all tangled up as if to show they belong together. He also has Smurfs. A hippopotamus with a gaping mouth. A gorilla beating its chest. A galloping horse unable to stand up. A man who is sitting down. He is blue all over, even his head.

Opposite the wood-burning stove is a little sofa, and he sits down on it with a Smurf in each hand. A floor lamp with a pleated shade leans over him. There is no light bulb in it, only a gaping hole. They have borrowed the cabin from someone his motherworks with, and the boy wonders why the owner has not put in a bulb. Perhaps for the same reason that there is no television.

He runs his hands over the sofa's upholstery, which is mustard yellow and knobbly. He knows if you play about wildly in a sofa like this you can burn yourself.

There is a small kitchen area, and he walks over to look. The fridge is so small he has to bend down to open it. It is empty inside; no light comes on and it does not even feel cold. He has to push the door firmly to make sure it stays shut. The wall above the draining board has the same cork covering as the floor — reddish brown with a hexagonal pattern.

There is a string of plastic garlic hanging from a nail. He points at it and asks if he can take it down, and she says he can. By climbing on a stool he can get onto the draining board and reach the garlic. Not that he can do much with it, but it is only pretend anyway. He pinches the stiff plastic leaves, testing to see how well they are attached, while his mother walks around opening cupboards and drawers. She opens the fridge too, and shuts it again.

The boy says there is floor on the walls.

'Yes,' she sighs. And walls on the floor.'

His mother brings in flowers, a large bunch, which she pushes into a vase and places on the table. They have a powerful, spicy fragrance and are called camomile. The boy notices that the white petals are covered in tiny, tiny insects, but she tells him not to mind. Some of them fall like snow onto the table, and so that he can see them against the grain of the wood he has to lower his head and look closely. The creatures are in a hurry and know exactly where they want to go. He tries to stop them and make them change direction, but he fails.

'Do you know how small these insects are?' he says.

'I'm sure they're minutely small.'

'They are so small they die when I touch them.'

Later that evening they lie on the bunk bed under a quilt patterned with huge fantasy flowers and spiralling stems. They have fitted an insect screen to the window and the whole cabin echoes to the chirping of grasshoppers.

'Listen,' she whispers, her lips against his hair. 'It sounds as if they are indoors, don't you think? As if they are here, in the cabin, playing for us. Under the bed perhaps?'

The boy nods and asks about the shielings she had been talking about in the car.

'Where are they?'

'In the forest.'

'Can we go there?'


'Can we?'

'We'll see.'

In the early morning the rain comes and does not stop. The raindrops are hitting the ashtray on the veranda rail so hard that the water looks as if it is boiling. Now the witch is cooking her soup, he thinks. The wooden seat of his chair is cold and he crouches on it, pulling his sweatshirt over his knees. He is waiting for breakfast. Once more he asks about the huts. Are they far away?

'We'll do it another day,' she says.

He protests loudly and is told they have no rain clothes with them. That disappoints him and he complains. He has his boots, after all. He whines until she strokes his hair.

She looks at him, her thick, shiny brown fringe falling over her large glasses. Her forehead is completely hidden.

They eat cold rosehip soup and bread spread with margarine.

'Boring sandwiches,' she says.

'When-it's-pouring sandwiches,' he replies.

Afterwards they play cards, Beggar My Neighbour. He is an expert at Beggar My Neighbour. You have to be especially careful when you lift your card in case the other person sees it. His mother does not understand that. She sits with her chin resting heavily on her hand, studying the cards that she turns up — she does not stand a chance. The boy triumphs again and again, slapping his palm hard on the tabletop and giggling every time he wins a pile of cards.

Finally she gives up, moves away from the table and curls up with a book on the little sofa. In her bag she has a whole pile of books. She rests her feet on the armrest and curls her toes. Her nails are squares of red varnish. She is wearing a chain around her neck, and as she reads she slides the pendant backwards and forwards, making a rasping noise. There is no point now in trying to talk to her. He knows that only too well.

The wood burner is a cavern and he puts his little figures in there, kneeling down and making the doors creak, and then shouting in a high-pitched voice. The stove is a prison and the figures hate being shut in. It is terrifying in there, dark and with only ash to eat. But they have only themselves to blame! Goofy tries to escape but is caught near the log basket and returned to the sooty cell, howling in protest.

His mother smiles at him.

He dislikes that, so he keeps quiet.

Towards afternoon the rain stops, and he gets excited. Now they can go out and look for the shielings! But his mother shakes her head. She says it is still raining in the forest. The trees will be dripping with water and it will be wet everywhere.

'We'll be drenched in no time,' she says, turning the page.

Then she says:

'You can go out on your own and play, can't you?' He can.

He rolls mosquito repellent on his forehead and chin and over his hands, all the way out to the fingers. Even on his sleeves and the front of his jeans, just to be sure. Then he puts on his boots, pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt, opens the door and shuts it quickly.

The plot is not large, more like a little glade in the forest, and he has soon explored it. The door of the woodshed is open, and inside a grey ball is hovering. A wasp nest. It looks uninhabited, but he does not dare take a closer look.

The silence brought on by the rain is still hanging over the forest. From the top of the steep glistening wall of pine trees come isolated, experimental trills. He walks slowly along the trail, his face upturned, trying to catch a glimpse of the birds, but the trees reveal nothing moving within them. They have secrets.

The forest drops, drips and dribbles. Plips and plops. The glossy, weighted vegetation shines. He feels as if it is coming towards him like the big wet brushes that spin against the windows in the car wash. Here and there are streamers of pinky red. Those flowers are called fox's brush, he knows that. The name is not difficult to remember.

He is thinking he might reach the car soon, that the chocolate-brown lacquer will flash among the trees. He is not sure what he will do there. Perhaps look at it, peer through one of the windows and then go back.

But then he catches sight of a ditch. The water is completely green, so the bottom is hidden, but it does not look deep. He wonders where the ditch is going and decides to follow it, stumbling over ground made bumpy by tussocks of grass. He tries as far as possible not to put his feet where it looks hollow and risky. With detours and small leaps from stumps to rocks he makes his way forwards. His ears are covered by his hood, so he cannot hear much, but the sounds come mainly from cones and twigs cracking beneath his boots and the wind slowly moving between the wet trees.

A shieling is an unpainted wooden shack — that much he knows, at least. Nobody lives there, but in the old days, long ago, animals lived there. Alone.

A house with animals. What would such a house look like? Has it got windows? If so, do the animals stand inside looking out, feeling bored? It was a strange thing to imagine. He is sure animals often feel bored, that they are so used to being bored they never even think how bored they are.

Occasionally the ditch disappears behind some impenetrable undergrowth and spiky clusters of reeds with long leaves. The grass swishes against his boots, and his trousers have gone dark at the front because of the water. It chills his thighs. His mother was right and he wonders if he should turn back.

Then he spots the footbridge and changes his mind.

A couple of dark tree trunks with planks nailed across them.

Is it a bridge to the shieling? Do the animals walk across this bridge?

He stands there with cold legs, hesitating a while.

The water beneath has a pea-green skin. It looks poisonous. A pine cone is floating in it. He could end up like that if he is not careful. He knows that. Someone floating, immobile, face down. Someone drowned.

Holding onto the rail he walks across the bridge. His mother's lips mouth a warning inside him, but he is already on his way into the sea of grass waiting on the other side. It is so tall that he disappears in it. When the wind blows the leaves bend and brush against each other. They become waves that whisper.

He can be just like an animal in the grass. A shrew, perhaps. Nothing is visible apart from strips of green slicing against each other. Holding his hands out in front of him he uses them to part the rustling reeds. This is what it is like for the shrew. Exactly like this.

The boy walks further and further out on the moss.

When he sees water in front of his feet he immediately steps to the side. He does not like the boggy feel of it. From time to time his boots gets stuck, as if the ground is sucking them down. It scares him, and after almost stepping out of one boot he has had enough and turns back. But instead of going back to the wooden bridge he cuts diagonally across the moss and wanders in among some birches he has spotted, and soon the forest is closing in around him.

Now he is walking on a carpet made of spongy moss. It is soft to walk on. It seems to want to spread everywhere and has even crept up the tree trunks. It covers the stones too, making them all as round as each other. He likes the look of that.

The branches fan out above him like a roof, so he does not feel any rain, and the wind that combed the gigantic grass cannot find its way in here.

He looks into the forest.

It is perfectly silent. It is actually odd how quiet it is. Nothing is moving, not even the small leaves on the bushes or the tops of the grass.

There is not much space between the trees. Narrow slits of light and that is all, it seems.

On the ground there is a lot to explore. There are dead things left lying about, a tree that has split open and whose insides are bright red, like meat, and just beyond it a rotted birch trunk that has fallen apart. Scaly shards of bark surround it. He digs the toe of his boot into the birch and presses carefully. It is soft right through.

Another tree trunk is dotted with yellow saucer shapes that look like ears. He tries to count them because there are so very many — how many ears can you actually have? — but he loses count when the mosquitoes fly into his face.

A hollow stump looks like a cauldron among the blueberry branches. A crown of moss surrounds the cavity. He looks down into the stump but there is nothing particularly interesting inside it, only dampness and pine needles stuck together in clumps. He would like to put his hand in and feel down to the bottom — perhaps a mouse is sleeping there — but he does not really dare.

Far, far inside the forest a bird flies soundlessly from one tree to the next, as if drawing a line between the trunks. The boy can see it out of the corner of his eye. He stands up and walks on, singing a little and talking to himself in a soft, jokey voice. His mother has told him there is nothing to fear in the forest, so he is not particularly afraid. No wolves, no bears, nothing that wants to eat him. Apart from the mosquitoes.


Excerpted from "The Shapeshifters"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Stefan Spjut.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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