by Karin Tidbeck
Published 2018 by Vintage
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1101973974
By Noah Sanders
You would imagine that a short story collection featuring a sentient bug-monster with a stomach full of secretion licking child-beasts would be defined as horror. You would also think a collection that features a man falling in love with a dirigible—and then being spurned by said machine—would be considered science-fiction. Or a book could be seen as fantasy, if it contains gods playing croquet with the heads of their servants. Jagannath, Swedish author Karin Tidbeck’s first collection short stories, finally making its way stateside, contains all these things, but like so many genre-defying works nowadays, it does not fit easily into any one description. This is a collection that pulls deeply from its genre predecessors—as well as the eerie folklore of Tidbeck’s native Sweden—in the pursuit of exploring mystical worlds, some just out of reach, some that live within us, and what sacrifices we make to get close enough to touch them.
The stories in Jagannath run the gamut from realistic prose flecked with fantastical elements to outlandish tales of opulent gods to small, steam-punk inflected fables. Through all of them, though, runs a familial through line, a sense of the supernatural living within our bloodstreams generation to generation, always seeking a way out into to the world. In many of the pieces within Jagannath, it is creation—birth or otherwise—that allows the characters to become one with the bizarre. In “Beatrice” a man falls in love with a showroom dirigible, a woman with a steam engine; their strange family made whole, and brought to ruin, by the arrival of a half-machine child. The title story, “Jagannath” finds a child birthed into the interior of a shambling machine bug, her life goal to keep “Mother” finely tuned. In some it is the reverse, a man-made clock turns a world of gods on its head in “Augusta Prime”; the human need to place structure upon the most abstract of concepts beyond the grasp of creatures birthed from myth and folklore.
“Reindeer Mountain” is Tidbeck’s story that drives the overriding theme home. In it, a family of three arrives in the far flung wilderness of Scandinavia to clear away the remnants of a decrepit family home. In most of her stories, Tidbeck does one of two things with her fantastical elements: she either approaches the more out-there aspects as if there’s nothing special or strange about them (the plague of bugs and specter-like caller of “Who Is Arvid Pekon?”) or she leaves it lingering on the periphery, just out of sight. “Reindeer Games” falls squarely into the latter category. The protagonists—two children, Cilla and Sara—are normal kids, venturing into the cold wilderness, but there’s a “sickness” in them, a mental illness that as one elderly character says, you “can’t get out of your blood.” Tidbeck dances between the idea of the sickness being genetic schizophrenia and it being a mystical sensitivity passed down from an ancient relatives dalliance with a vittra (a mythical Swedish creature). Though steeped in the realism of two teens experiencing the boredom and rare excitement of deep country adventure, the story speaks of what lives within us, the thin line between folklore and reality we all inhabit. As Tidbeck writes, “In some places, time,” or reality perhaps, “is a weak and occasional phenomenon.”
Tidbeck’s stories—warm and inviting even at their most disturbing—are self-described in her afterword as “speculative fiction”—the current trend-word for those authors unsettled by starker genre descriptions—but the author diminishes the strange and wondrous world she creates by doing so. These are science-fiction and fantasy, horror even, but shot from such odd angles and told in such a distinct, original voice that they transcend the trappings of genre. The gentle pulse of the otherworldly in Tidbeck’s stories slips off the page and into the reader, drawing them unaware into situations so much stranger than they first believed.