Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. Cheeky Frawg Press. 160pp, $11.99.
How describe the vision of the Swedish fantasist Karin Tidbeck, as distilled in her American debut Jagannath, which culls 13 of her fictions? Each presents a nightmare, yet each feels strangely justified, in a perfect, painful balance. The critic’s knocked sideways, flailing for any handhold he can find. One might be H.P. Lovecraft.
Tidbeck herself acknowledges a debt to the horrormeister of Rhode Island, in Jagannath’s sharp-witted yet understated “Afterword.” She declares that a teenage immersion in Lovecraft has left her with “a bit of a wobble,” and these stories often imbue the present with haunts out of a monstrous, immemorial past, things that go bump in the night as they re-emerge:
[T]he vittra . . . came out from between the pine trees, walking in pairs, all dressed in red and white: the women wore red skirts and shawls and the men long red coats. Two of them were playing the fiddle, a slow and eerie melody in a minor key.
These “vittra,” like Cthulu demons in better clothes, mean harm: they’ve come to claim a changeling. Yet even these few lines demonstrate how Tidbeck gives us Lovecraft without the baroque. What’s “eerie,” under the Scandinavian pines, never peacocks around as “eldritch,” the way it would along the Miskatonic River. Tidbeck’s title may derive from a Hindu deity, one with a mythology vaguer than most, but whatever looms out of this author’s nether realm is handled matter-of-factly, with journalistic terseness. In the best stories (like “Reindeer Mountain,” above), the result is an unlikely, insidious chill. It leaves you rereading in search of what scared you.
Perhaps, instead, Tidbeck’s speculative fiction might be best appreciated as something more up-to-the-minute, a woman’s take on the urbane, postmodern fantasia of writers like Donald Barthelme. The Jagannath stories all deserve the name, they’re stories, with suspense, event, and surprise, but their teller knows how to leave a gap: to elide, to imply. She can play fast and loose with chronology, too, and throughout, she never lacks for sophistication. Several pieces prove savvy about strange bedfellows and fend off shopworn images—a great relief, among writers going for horror or working with the occult.
One thinks of Barthelme especially while reading Tidbeck’s opener, “Beatrice.” The title of course recalls a far older writer, Dante, and the story does feature an otherworldly lover-muse like his. But Tidbeck pairs a couple of romances between humans and machines, a conjoining that can’t help but suggest Barthelme, who likewise gave love some very strange bounces (in particular, on a giant balloon). In “Beatrice,” though, a bizarre intervention allows both love objects, and I do mean “objects,” to become part of a feminist parable. Both, at cost, gain their freedom, and the story’s impact deepens for its unpredictability.
Or then again, maybe the best handle on Jagannath is provided by how unapologetically it claims the SF/F genre. The publisher is Cheeky Frawg, run by the Jeff and Ann VanderMeeer, the couple behind the New Weird anthologies (and much else), the introduction is by Elizabeth Hand, another writer who blends horror, magic, and love, and the blurbs come from the likes of Ursula Le Guin and China Mieville. With this posse in mind, the collection might be understood as putting in place the first pieces of an alternative universe. Essential to nearly all literature of the fantastic, after all, is the creation of some berserk reality that holds a mirror to our own. Tidbeck’s three final pieces indeed set up such Otherworlds, and these suggest, again, a feminist project. All feature a matriarchy, and two bring off scarifying gelatinous scenes of alien birth.
Yet the story closest to fairytale, “Augusta Prima,” reverses the mirror. We don’t see ourselves in these phatasms; rather it’s they who must face the ordinary. As for the book’s closer, the title piece and one of the longest, it depends on a symbiosis of human, machine, and a vast insect-mother, and so calls to mind, especially, Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild. Yet “Jagannath” winds up far from Butler, just as “Reindeer Mountain” felt finally nothing like Lovecraft. Butler’s imagination was fired by social critique, a denunciation of the master-slave relationship, whereas the final imaginative twists in Tidbeck revel in apocalypse, as the alternative way of life breaks down irrevocably. The disquiet does resonate with our experience, but what matters more is how it plain sets us shivering.
Which leaves the critic flailing, struggling for purchase. In “Pyret,” Lovecraft’s Elder Magick trope combines improbably with academic fussiness and still succeeds in raising the back-hairs. In “Herr Cederberg,” Tidbeck starts a simple game of get-the-nerd, a fallback dramatic device if there ever were one, and then blows it up, taking her office drone over the rainbow. Every story provides a wild ride, a whee out of nowhere, and as for the poor reviewer stumbling behind—isn’t there an old piece of speculative fiction about blind men and an elephant?
Indeed, if one were to quibble with Jagannath (with a nervous joke about arguing with a god), it would be for the overall brevity. One or two surprises depend an awful lot on the sketchiness of what came before, and this author may benefit by being in less of a rush to unveil her next Caliban. Prospero too can fascinate, as he talks through his betrayal, his parenting, his struggle to forgive—his psychology, that is. Tidbeck’s a formidable magician indeed, and so skilled a technician she did her own translations. She deserves the acclaim she’s won at home, and more of the same here in the US, but one hopes her next book in English will be a novel. It’d be fascinating to see what she’s capable of in longer narrative, with its longer lingering on the interior life.
The Sea-God’s Herb, a selection of John Domini’s essays and reviews (including a piece or two from The Quarterly Conversation) will appear soon on Dzanc Books. See johndomini.com.
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