Bill’s Thoughts On: Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath

tidbeck-jagannath-coverIf 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.

  1. 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. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!