Slinking between genres and hiding in the cracks of the Dewey Decimal System is Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath. It has 13 stories. None of them straightforward, and all of them hard to classify. Whether they’re fantasy or horror or something else is up for debate – the point is, they don’t suck.
“Beatrice” is a steampunk romance featuring a man and a woman who are in love with (respectively) an airship and a steam locomotive. Tidbeck tweaks preconceptions by giving the male and female leads an utterly platonic relationship: it’s the machines that are the love interests. It’s difficult for a human to have a lover that needs oil changes, but the absurd premise doesn’t get in the way of the poignant ending.
“Pyret” is a brilliant piece of forged history that reminds of Bigfoot mythology combined with Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Though it’s written in a deliberately scholarly tone, it packs lots of emotional heft as we learn of a Swedish mythological creature that might not be mythological. Tidbeck has a talent for evoking pity and sympathy for the alien and monstrous.
“Jagannath” is a Noah’s ark story with a critical extra ingredient – the boat has a personality. In a desolate future, a couple of humans (or creatures that are similar to humans) must survive by travelling inside the belly of a gigantic “mother” that roams the barely-habitable landscape, looking for food. Again, a strange premise that the reader accepts uncritically on the strength of the writing.
There’s some shorter stories – some are less elaborate than others, but all of them are well conceived. “Cloudberry Jam” features a woman growing a child inside an empty jam tin. “Herr Cederberg” is about a man who wants to be a bumblebee. JG Ballard isn’t far from one’s mind when reading some of these – Tidbeck loves weirdos who get vindicated at the end.
Jagannath’s stories are screwy and weird, but they’re also disciplined exercises in storytelling efficiency. You can’t always see where a story’s going at first, but you quickly learn to relax, because you’re in good hands.