Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: The Tidbeck Treatment

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.

Forgive me, readers, for I have failed. Frequently, even. I’ve read a lot of short stories since we started this adventure together, certainly—many more than I would have done were it not for the Spotlight—but only on rare occasion have I been able to consume a collection from end to end. I begin them with the best of intentions, but reading, say, a hundred pages of assorted short fiction seems to me a very different experience from reading the same amount of an ongoing story. Yes, the short form is often more immediately rewarding, yet going from one narrative to another to another in quick succession is an exhausting business, isn’t it?

In moments like those, I find it difficult to resist the siren song of the novel. And the novel demands that you come back—again and again and again until you reach the end. Normally, the anthology does not. Thus the collections I commence eventually go back on the bookshelves. I cannot count the number I’ve abandoned, albeit by accident, in this exact fashion.

It wasn’t like that with Jagannath.

To be sure, I put it down on various occasions—indeed, I read entire novels in the periods between these pieces—but these tales true and taboo never quite left my mind, so I kept the collection in sight at all times. Slowly but surely, I pushed through this too-brief book, finding resonance in repeating themes and increasingly appreciating the species of the weird which the Swede breeds.

That Jagannath is absolutely fantastic should be news to none of you. But Karen Tidbeck has been relatively busy since, and with awards season well and truly upon us, I thought I’d take today to talk about one of the shorts she wrote recently.

Of the four to have seen release in 2013, I’ve read three. Brit has already talked upA Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” (found in Lightspeed), and much as I admired its bizarre narrative, “Sing,” published right here on Tor.com, ends so abruptly that it still feels incomplete to me.

Fortuitously, that leaves me with one of my favourite stories of the year: “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” is a bittersweet piece about mental health and a magical animal which may or may not be absorbing its owner’s illness. As our narrator Anna explains:

I was in treatment, but it wasn’t going well. I suffered from recursive treatment-resistant depression or, possibly, bipolar II disorder—my doctors wouldn’t settle on a diagnosis. Whatever you called it, it was hell. Over the years, I had tried every combination of the usual substances: MAOIs, tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants, SSRIs and SNRIs, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medication. They mostly gave me side-effects. I was bloated and sweaty and twitchy, but still depressed. The doctors were trying to get me into ECT, but I was reluctant. This is where the goat came in.

This is a “compliance trained” creature given to Anna by her authentically indifferent psychiatrist. She’s told that through “a technique known as transference,” said Sadgoat—for so it is known—will essentially suck up her persistent sickness. “That’s all there is to it, really,” Dr Andersson declares. “No need to complicate things.”

Nevertheless, Anna is skeptical. “Walking home, I was wondering if the doctors were laughing at me in the lunch room. They’d given me a goat to see if I’d fall for it. There wasn’t a treatment.” But there is. And unbelievably, it works:

With most meds, you have to wait for weeks until there’s any change. I hate that about starting a new medication; you wait and wait and sometimes you feel worse, because the side effects always come first, and then if you’re lucky maybe you start feeling less sucky for a while… until the meds poop out on you.

This time it was fast.

Soon enough, she’s started sleeping in her own bed again; eating better and engaging with other people, even. But as Anna’s depression gradually passes, as if by magic, her poor pet starts to show signs of her own sorrow. She “wasn’t so keen on walkies anymore. She spent most of the day curled up on a blanket by the TV. She got fatter in a dense way, her skin stretched taut over the swelling limbs. She wouldn’t eat, and barely drank.”

Pretty much the dictionary definition of depression, then.

And when the dirty work is done, Anna has to give Sadgoat back. “I didn’t have any major relapses after that. The depressive episodes became no more than a bit of temporary gloom. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Sadgoat, though.” Her sacrifice, in fact, weighs heavily upon Anna in the months to come, so when she sees Sadgoat again, she means to intervene.

“I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” is an oddly affecting short story that explores some of the same ideas Tidbeck has in the past. By taking a mundane matter—mental illness in this instance—and subverting it with the weird, she’s able to shine a light on the subject without the illumination becoming uncomfortable. Readers experience something real without really realising.

And never mind the magical animal: suspension of disbelief is no problem at all in Tidbeck’s tale. As ever, her commitment to the absolute reality of her narrative and characters serves to increase one’s immersion immeasurably.

Neatly, Tidbeck leaves her story open to completely contrary readings. I’m of a mind that Sadgoat must be magical, but perhaps she’s no more so than Dr Andersson describes. Perhaps she serves as a placebo of sorts: a furry flour baby Anna is instructed to care for, which actively helps her learn to love life again… or at least not dislike it.

So maybe Anna’s improvement is her own doing. Or maybe Sadgoat simply swallowed her sickness whole. One way or the other—or even another—‘I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You’ is a careful and understated tale that, though it smartly sidesteps sentimentality, is likely to leave readers reeling in a manner far beyond the means of most short stories about mental health and magical animals.

I mentioned it being awards season earlier. If any of you need notions for nominations…


Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

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