I was a college freshman when I encountered Max Weber’s concept of entzauberung, or “demystification.” Weber used the term to describe the sociological processes by which religion ceased to be the primary lens through which people understood the world. I remember being taken with entzauberung, recognizing in it the antithesis of that which I intended to devote my life, the cultivation of mystery. Having grown up in the Bible belt of Pennsylvania, I was familiar not only with the painfully earthbound routine of suburban life, but also with the teeming millennialism of the evangelicals who filled so many Lancaster County churches. My goal was neither Heaven nor Hell, but the reestablishment of wonder, of ghosts and portents and sundry other folk beliefs that once gave daily life its character.
I was an idealist.
Older now, though perhaps none the wiser, I know that mystery is not, perhaps, desirable in one’s everyday life and, in any case, is less a thing to be encountered than a state to be perceived. I settled into the grownup life at which I had once thumbed my nose. And then I opened a book, and, with a shock, seemed to find in its pages a treasure map on the very margins of which was written, “Here be monsters”: Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath.
Jagannath is a collection of short stories that might be said to be speculative fiction, or weird fiction, perhaps representative of “the New Weird.” Some of the stories are so brief, their endings so sudden, that I hesitate to call them stories at all; they might more appropriately be termed “sketches.” “Who is Arvod Pekon?,” about a trouble telephone operator, comes to mind. Rather than disappointing the reader, though, the nearly incomplete nature of some of Tidbeck’s tales renders them more puzzling and ultimately more unsettling, like a fairy tale lacking the requisite (modern) happy ending.
Tidbeck’s stories are full of unsatisfied cravings. In “Beatrice,” a physician falls in love with a dirigible. The titular character in “Rebecka” demands to know why she suffers—in the wake of the Second Coming. Tidbeck beautifully captures our yearning for worlds beyond our own: “When I was little, I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. I still have that longing, but it doesn’t overwhelm me like it used to. Until now. There’s something about the light that makes the longing bloom,” “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom.” And, in “Reindeer Mountain”: “Cilla suddenly knew with absolute certainty what she had been pining for, that wonderful something out there.” Tidbeck’s stories capture what I imagine to be the dreamlike nature of the endless Nordic summer days that result from proximity to the Arctic Circle.
I’m not one to rave or gush about books, and of course Jagannath isn’t perfect. The fragmentary nature of some stories will frustrate certain readers, a quality that, I contend, enhances the integrity of Tidbeck’s vision. Highly recommended for fans of fantasy, speculative or weird fiction, or any reader willing to immerse him- or herself in something wondrous and strange.