As a bit of an addendum to my prior post on reading more widely and more weirdly, I’m going to throw up three recommendations for truly odd and exotic books I’ve read over the last few years. I feel that literature out of the northern Baltic and Nordic areas is woefully under-read, part of that it because it can be a pain to find translated and part of it is because their speculative fiction is truly bizarre and draws on traditions more akin to Jorge Borges than anything in the mainstream. There’s been a fantastic push to get Scandinavian Noir out there as its own genre, works like The Killing and The Bridge making an impact outside of their homeland, but not much in the way of speculative fiction. Which is a shame, because there’s some fantastic stuff out there, you just have to go far out of your way to find it.
I’ll start with the Swede first. Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath is a journey through some bizarre mindscapes drawing, as mentioned before, on Borges and then complementing with style similar to le Guin, Lovecraft and Poe while maintaining her own unique voice. Some stories worked better for me than others, but it’s one of those compilations where I never felt the urge to skip past something. Even the ones I didn’t care for were really intriguing on a conceptual level and I wanted to see how she finished them up. My personal favorite is the titular story, a very le Guin-ish piece about the relationship between a living ship/hive and the offspring that inhabit her body, and that kind of sets the tone for the collection as a whole. Many of them deal with relationships tinged with an aura of weirdness but still utterly human and recognizable as so. Some of them gave me mental images akin to Lynch or Cronenberg at their absolute strangest, and anyone who’s listened to me ramble about movies for more than a few minutes knows that’s a huge compliment coming from my mouth. Augusta Prime is a close second, a story about Scandinavian faerie courts and their doctrines set in place to prevent themselves from being infected by the concept of linear time, a mind-plague that has driven other mythical species mad. The other stories are, as I said, interesting reads but some of them are so short I don’t even want to give a teasing synopsis for fear of spoiling them.
Next, Leena Krohn’s Tainaron. Krohn is, frankly, a criminally underrated author who has received bucketloads of critical acclaim in her native Finland and been translated to half a dozen languages including English, but I think I’ve met all of… three? Maybe four people? In over a decade immersed in reading and writing communities, interacting with folks who are otherwise extraordinarily widely read. In all honesty every single one of her works I have read has blown my socks off and I think that her back catalog should be required reading for anyone who wants to work within the Weird movement. I picked Tainaron in particular because it was my introduction to her greater body of work and it includes a lot of what I love in good, concise surreal fiction. It consists of letters of varying length being written by a nameless protagonist living abroad in a city populated by giant talking insects, and every single one of these letters could be taken as part of a treatise on worldbuilding and how to show it through the narrator rather than it coming off as an infodump. The most bizarre elements of the world are treated so blandly and offhandedly that you can’t help but be sucked in and start feeling like this is a place that actually exists somewhere in the world. If you’re a fan at all of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, particularly his Southern Reach trilogy, you should know that this book and several other of her stories have been cited by him as a tremendous inspiration and better representations of the Weird movement than what we have commonly come to consider the “greats,” Lovecraft and Ashton Smith and company. Vandermeer has gone into quite a bit of detail over what makes her such a great author in multiple interviews over the years and has been hip-deep in translation projects to get several otherwise little known but amazing writers into the anglosphere, so if this book and/or review tickles your fancy you’d do well to start following him and watching the shelves for stuff with the Vandermeer name on it.
Finally, a bit of a sampler platter with It Came From the North, collected by Desirina Boskovich. I actually cheated a little bit with the title of this post because it’s more like several Fins and a Swede, but “two x and a y” rolls of the tongue better for me. Anyway, Hairball is the story that seems to get the most attention out of this anthology, because you’re going to be hard pressed to find something more shockingly bizarre than the tale of a woman who falls in love with a clump of hair she fishes out of her drain. I liked the ones that dealt with the mixture of Finnish mythology and contemporary life, though – something like urban fantasy but not beholden to many of the tropes we consider married to the genre today. If I had to pick one US/UK/etc author to compare this collection to to help in the recommendation, I would probably say it reminds me quite a bit of a Charles de Lint anthology but drawing more from the Kalevala than Celtic and North American folklore for that dash of the supernatural. Trolls being nursed back to health by good samaritans, strange swamps full of ancient healing powers, the power that connects a blacksmith to the worlds beyond, there’s a lot to digest here and at least a few stories for anyone. If I had to pick words to describe the overall tone of the book it would be strange but gentle, like carefully pulling back the veil of the modern world to look at all the natural and mythological things napping in the shadows, not ready to do the mortal world harm like so many contemporary fantasy pieces but just making their own way and sharing tender moments with the protagonists who respect and are kind to them. I’ve also enjoyed pretty much everything else I’d read from the authors included in this anthology, and many of them do have longer fiction pieces available.
The 75th World Science Fiction Convention is being held in Helsinki, Finland around this time next year. I really hope that putting it so easily accessible to Sweden, Norway, Estonia and other countries with a great history of literature but a relatively small amount of translated output will help spread works like this around and make them more recognized on a global scale. I need to a future one of these on Estonia in particular, some day. Those dudes really know their speculative fiction. They even have an award called the STALKER after the ’79 Tarkovsky film that (along with Roadside Picnic) went on to influence the Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games.