If nothing else, Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath taught me exactly what is meant by the phrase “weird fiction.”
I’ve read a lot of books that could be described as “weird,” but most of them are not “weird fiction.” “Weird” is a more or less meaningless word, as it’s commonly used: it just means “unexpected.” I’m reading Gone Girl right now with my wife, and there’s a moment when Nick says that the word “surreal” is now mostly used to “describe moments that are merely unusual.” People use “weird” in exactly the same way, and that’s fine, but it’s not exactly what “weird fiction” means.
I think people use “weird” to mean “unusual,” or “random,” or “absurd.” It’s unusual if it’s out of the ordinary, it’s “random” the way 15-year-olds who have just discovered Monty Python are “random,” and/or it’s “absurd” in the Waiting for Godot sense. But while Waiting for Godot is certainly a weird play, is not a “weird fiction” play. Similarly, several of my friends told me that Birdman was a “weird” movie, and they’re right. It’s unusual and a bit unsettling: the long takes, the sudden diversions into fantasy whenever Riggan is alone, the bizarre things Edward Norton’s character does. But it’s not a “weird fiction” movie.
“Weird,” in “weird fiction,” isn’t “Weird Al” Yankovic or Birdman or “that weird kid in my Chemistry class.” It’s the Weird, more than just unusual: strange, bizarre, unexpected and unsettling, maybe “uncanny.”1 An encounter with the Weird leaves you shaken, makes you look at the world as though everything has tilted slightly to the left.
I guess in a more formal sense, Weird Fiction is a term that is primarily applied retroactively, to the ‘30s and ‘40s and such, Lovecraft and Smith and Chambers and some others. But it seems like some newer writers are appropriating the term, and hey, they seem to know more than I do about it, so I’ll let them.
I generally appreciate “weird fiction,” though I really haven’t read very much of it other than Lovecraft’s work, so I felt like I should brush up on what was going on in the field. Accordingly, I bought the StoryBundle of “weird fiction” put together by the VanderMeers a few months ago, and then picked a book more or less at random. That’s a lie. I picked Jagannath because it was the shortest book, and I was tired. But my laziness was well-rewarded.
Jagannath is a collection of 13 short stories written by Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck and published in English in 2012. Some of the stories were originally written in Swedish and then translated (by the author) into English later, and some were written in English originally, and I cannot tell the difference between the two, which is a feat in and of itself. Some of the stories (Augusta Prima and Aunts) are Dunsanian faerie-stories partly about dreamy fey courts filled with strange and terrible courtiers. Others (Some Letters for Ove Lindström, Reindeer Mountain) are as much about growing up in Sweden in particular times and places as they are about whatever bizarre things are lurking in the background. Still more (Miss Nyberg and I, Herr Cederberg, Who is Arvid Pekon?) are short and slightly funny even as they itch at the base of your skull. One (Pyret) is a Borgesian catalogue of a nonexistent creature, complete with academic citations to essays that never existed. The stories are about a lot of different things, but they are all Weird, in the proper sense.
Tidbeck’s writing gets under your skin and sets up shop there, for better or for worse. She manages this whether in first or third-person, whether she’s writing about ordinary people thrust into bizarre situations or about bizarre people treating their lives as though they were perfectly ordinary.
Many of the stories are at least partly about families and children. One woman grows a strange, vegetal child in a tin can. Two young girls find their great-grandmother’s wedding dress and realize she might not have been human. A young woman moves into her father’s house after he dies and writes letters to him, slowly realizing her mother was far stranger than she remembered.
These play out differently than they do in Lovecraft, though. Several of Lovecraft’s stories (The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family, The Dunwich Horror and maybe parts of At the Mountains of Madness and The Call of Cthulhu among others) worry about humans interbreeding with strange and terrifying creatures. But Lovecraft’s stories inevitably paint that as a horrifying, revolting thing: when Arthur Jermyn finds out his true lineage, he lights himself on fire. Many critics have reasonably used this recurring theme to point to Lovecraft’s fear of miscegenation as maybe chief amongst his general armada of racist worries.
But no one sets themselves on fire in Tidbeck’s stories. If someone discovers that she might have otherworldly ancestors, she reacts with shock or wonder or amazement, but not usually with disgust or horror the way Lovecraft’s characters do. All of the stories are unsettling and some of them feature strange bodily transformations or physical revulsion, but most of them probably could not really be called “horror.” The point of these stories is not to make you gasp or fear or re-evaluate your existence, quaking and silent in a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” Most of them just twist some element of the real world and see what happens. Tidbeck’s stories about families with strange histories are still about families.
The story I enjoyed the most is, appropriately, the title story, Jagannath. It’s a little difficult to tell you what it’s about without summarizing it, and since it’s not very long, I think it would make more sense for you to read it yourself. But Jagannath, both the story and the collection of stories, showcased one of my favorite parts of speculative fiction as a whole and “weird fiction” in particular. Short “weird fiction” feels almost like poetry, in that it’s less about plot or character than about perfectly describing some bizarre vision, capturing in deft words some strangeness that resonates and shrieks and doesn’t want to be pinned down.
- I haven’t read nearly enough Freud or Kristeva to talk about the uncanny or the abject with any confidence, but I think they’re all related to the Weird. [↩]