Fantasy isn’t just a realm we escape to, it’s something we often run from, eyes wide open, hysterical laughter bubbling up from our guts. Maybe it’s only a feeling that scares us away, or maybe it’s something we see, a dark reflection or ill-formed shadow. It’s best not to look back, but Swedish author Karin Tidbeck does more than look back, she lingers, and what she sees is recorded in the amazing collection Jagannath.
Tidbeck’s work has appeared mostly in her native Sweden, with some English publications in Weird Tales and other purveyors of literary oddities. Tidbeck’s work is horror because it’s scary, and it’s fantasy in the sense that it’s fantastic, but labels and categories hardly seem worth it, even as shorthand. There’s a timeless, old world feeling in these stories, a feeling that these sorts of things used to happen. And why not? Magic in the woods, anthropomorphic plants, machine/beast hybrids, and some intense body horror: it’s the stuff of dream and nightmares and tales told so many times we assume they’ve always been with us.
In the opening story, “Beatrice”, a man falls in love with the prototype of a flying machine, but he cannot purchase it. Later, he assembles from a kit a machine that is exactly the same in every way, but it’s not her. The story plays with the ways we assign gender to things as a way of familiarizing ourselves with them, how we create a sense not just a sense of ownership but of belonging. The man in the story loves his ship, tries to make his relationship work, but knows it doesn’t. Things take a dark turn when the ship’s feelings about his romantic and sexual advances are revealed to the man by the love child of a woman and a furnace. It’s a sad story, filled with the man’s isolation and the ship’s pain, all of which is complicated by the strangeness of the subject.
“Rebecka” imagines a world in which “the Lord” has returned and answers prayers literally and reliably. Rebecka is unstable, repeatedly attempting suicide but always failing. As Rebecka’s painful past is revealed, asking how god can let horrible things happen becomes more than a question of theology. The question has actual, real world implications. Tidbeck proposes that a present, verifiable god in the world would only reinforce humanity’s cynical urges, not cure them.
“Pyret” is everything that is great about this book: it’s a catalogue of wonders, a study of the unreal, a confirmation of strange goings on. Presented as an academic essay, it’s the a catalogue of events surrounding a cryptid throughout history, including the narrator’s personal account of the pyret assuming the form of all the residents of a small village. It begins as a rather dry examination, complete with footnotes, of the pyret, and it slowly becomes light and funny, which leaves one unguarded for the creepiness which pervades the remainder of the story.
“Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” both take place in the same world, another realm where time is thin and powerful beings entertain themselves with wicked games of croquet and never-ending orgies. The Aunts are three grotesque beings resting on couches, their only purpose to grow larger and larger. Of the biggest woman, Great Aunt, Tidbeck writes, “Her body flowed down from her head likes waves of whipped cream, arms and legs mere nubs protruding from her magnificent mass.” When time comes to their realms, the Aunts are to be replaced, and the cannibalistic ceremony of death and rebirth which follows is one of the most vivid scenes in a book filled with them. This strange realm feels like a place Tidbeck will visit again, a depository for her most out-there ideas, and if we’re lucky she take us there again.
“Jagannath” is the tale of a woman named Rak living inside of a monstrous creature called Mother, and it’s easily the best story in the book. Mother provides nourishment in the form of goop oozing from her interior walls, and the humans to whom she plays host act as the engineers of her massive body. Children are birthed from pulsating tubes, and the dead are kneaded through Mother’s intestines by workers, nothing wasted, all of it in the service of Mother’s survival. In many stories like this, those dependent on Mother would eventually revolt and break free of their oppressive, planned existence as cogs in the belly of the beast.
Here the conflict is not the relationship between the beast and her hosts, but rather what happens when that relationship ends. Rak asks, “What is outside Mother”, but not in cliché way, the way that suggests she longs to break free. She asks for the reader, because we’re in her world and we want to know, too. “Jagannath” is a story filled with uncomfortable smells and sensations, a visceral experience that’s difficult to ponder and wonderful to read.
“Unexpected” is the word which best describes all of the stories here. As with any collection there are some stories which are better than others, and usually it’s obvious within a paragraph or two which ones will or won’t hit that sweet spot in the heart or the head. Here, though, Tidbeck leaves little room for doubt, and when you start reading something happens and it won’t let you go. At only 142 pages, Jagannath is a small book, but the joy, dread, and wonder it evokes is immense.