Winterreise — Andrew Foster-Williams, Christopher Gould and Mariele Neudecker — The Great Hall, Lancaster University

(Originally posted on The Lunecy Review, 20 November 2009.)

The high water mark of the second flowering of German Romanticism is the work of Franz Schubert, and in particular the song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller tells the tragic story of a young man who travels to the human of a woman he loves, only to be rejected, and of his desolate ‘winter journey’ afterwards.

The German born but British based artist Mariele Neudecker has explored many of the themes of German Romanticism over her career, from early works reproducing the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in three dimensions to her more recent film setting of Mahler’s kindertotenlieder. Her films comprising her Winterreise are both literal and metaphorical representations of Schubert and Muller and serve as a backdrop and complement to the performance of bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould.
As one of the audience told me afterwards, the combination of recital and film can be a mistake, one distracting from the other, but Winterreise gets it absolutely right. Foster-Williams is a great singer and he performs remarkably across a difficult, arduous work. 85 minutes with a furrowed brow almost, as he portrays the anguish and angst of Muller’s protagonist (himself an echo of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther a generation earlier.) It should be noted that recordings of Schubert generally feature a tenor but the deeper voice has equal merits for me. Gould is a sensitive pianist, careful and responsive, coming to the fore in the Sturm und Drang mid sections, fading almost into the mist at other points. His rapport with Foster-Williams and supporting appreciation of both singer and visuals is near perfect to my ear.
As for the visuals themselves? Neudecker has consistently adopted a long view, and that is ever-present here. The films repeatedly look away from the observer (something seen in the paintings of Friedrich) placing us in the protagonist’s mind throughout. Looped film of a boat wake cutting through icy seas draw the eye both towards the departure point and, tellingly, under the ice. Snow covered streets change with the light yet remain essentially the same. Often elements of apparent interest are distant, mist-shrouded and ghostly. Each film takes an epigraph paraphrasing Muller, koan like, suggestive.
There has been much debate over the years about the ending of Winterreise. Muller depicts the appearance of a barefoot elderly hurdy-gurdy man, a scene open to multiple interpretations, and Neudecker maintains this ambiguity. I have my ideas; it is a tragic piece exploring dark emotions and the elemental sublime at the heart of Romanticism.
Winterreise was first made in 2004 and has been performed like this about 25 times since. Whether it is the art, the music or Romanticism that draws you along, the end result is a superb work worth revisiting. LICA are to be commended for bringing such world-class performers to Lancaster.

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The Museum of Shadows and Reflections – Claire Dean

(Unsettling Wonder, 2017)

Fantasy almost always admits to being Fantasy, always contains that moment of recognition of being story.  Fairytales are arguably more explicit on this point than other fantasies, being dependent on familiarity for affect.  

Claire Dean’s stories collected here have something of fairytale and fantasy about them, yet most also eschew that knowing declaration of story.  Here be, not dragons, but bird women, miniature cities and transformations.  Usually however, these fabulations don’t acknowledge anything magical.  In her best stories Dean makes the quotidian marvellous.  

Take opener ‘Raven’ where only the epigraph from Grimm even tentatively recognises anything abnormal about a baby transformed into a bird.  The narrator is more concerned with looking after what is still her child, than with how or why.

“I’d always said there was no way I was breastfeeding her once she got teeth. I hadn’t expected a beak.”

Birds in human form, or women in avian form, occur in Feather Girls too.  This matter of fact telling of a man meeting his feather girl date in a pub exemplifies one of Dean’s traits.  That defining characteristic of fairytale that Marina Warner identifies, the happy ending, has arguably already happened.  That recognition occurs outwith the text.  

“‘You have to catch their coats whilst they’re young.’ That’s was the saying he’d been brought up with”

But he has been meeting her for years, and he hasn’t trapped her. We get the feeling she would allow it but they don’t. There’s acceptance but an understated longing too.  

In subsequent stories Dean returns repeatedly to the idea of a miniature city or town being nested within our world.  Characters flow between here and what I want to call not-here rather than there.  ‘There’ is a specific place even when mysterious and unknown.  Claire Dean evokes a non-place, abstract and displaced from the world.  It is interstitial to such stories as “Growing Cities” and “Glass, Bricks, Dust” and particularly the poignant farewell to an old woman: ‘Stone Sea’ which reflects Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.  That French surrealist anti-novel provides the quote prefacing these stories:

“New myths spring up beneath each step we take.”

If Claire Dean is creating new myths she sits in a long tradition of feminist writers retelling fairytales back through Le Guin, Saxton, Carter, McKinley, Goldstein, Winterson or Attwood.  Her way isn’t the eroticism or the assertive role changes of some of these writers or the overt retelling of the too familiar tale.  Like much of their work however these stories sit outside their putative genre.

Only ‘The Silent Kingdom’ and ‘The Woman Who Wore Frost Slippers’ fully adopt a fairytale voice with more generic characters identified as the princess, the old woman etc.  The former story lays bare its nature from the first line: 

“Once there was and there was not a Kingdom wrapped in silence.”  That sounds like a classic fairytale opening but then there’s that twist. Was and was not.  Fantasy and fairytale are generally self-contained. They work to internal rules that may not be our world.  Here Dean may have broken that, by telling us not to believe all we see.  The genre linkage are fractured and, I think, hesitant.  

Returning to the other stories here, Dean writes a clear, mundane detailed real world.  The descriptions are spare but precise.  As far as I can tell only two stories specify a geographical setting: the disturbing ‘Moth Light’ with its implied Manchester and feminist depiction of lost identity in a relationship; and the Blackpool seafront of the title story which liberates that lost identity.  Somehow many of the rest convey that universality of the run-down English resort without names. She utilises familiarity in the setting to ground the fantastic rather than contrast it.  This is clearly our world and clearly not our world.  “Once there was and there was not”   It is a world where things happen differently but not unexpectedly.  It is there and not-there. 

Claire Dean photograph by Kev McVeigh 

A baby is a wondrous thing, she is no more or less wondrous or loveable or anxiety-provoking for being a Raven at times. A date with a loved one is special regardless of her feathers.  A neglected memory is no more poignant for being a preserved living shadow in a museum.  

The fantastic element enhances the mimetic rather than the more usual reverse.  It is here that Claire Dean’s stories work best for me.  There are transformations in some stories but overall it is a change of viewpoint about something largely outwith the story.  Several stories imply a protagonist/narrator becoming what she initially was viewing and so looking out where she looked in. ‘Marionettes’ originally published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, is a particularly disturbing example. 

 There are anxieties and loss throughout the collection but there’s an acceptance of this too.  A sense of control and peace ultimately pervades the collection.  The stories are all short, (14 across 116 illustrated pages.) so whilst Wrongness isn’t always apparent even in the several stories of death, such as the drowned village of Chorden-under-water, there is Recognition which may not look like a happy ending Disney-style, but is often a Healing implicit beyond The End.  

Claire Dean’s stories are fairytales and fantasy and are not fairytales or fantasy. They balance on the cusp, reflecting or casting shadows.  Reflections are familiar but not quite right. So too are the northern coastal towns and people living in these stories. The stories are charming and poignant but disturbing too. They are short, rich in dark flavours, and memorable.  The Museum of Shadows and Reflections is a remarkable collection.  You cannot seek it out to buy it now, like the mysterious travel agency to another world, when you come back the next day, it is gone.*

Illustration by Laura Rae for ‘Feather Girls’

*The book was funded on advance orders and the publisher only printed enough for those who ordered.  So only 110 copies were made. Some of Claire’s work can be read here

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Albums of the year 2016 pt 2

Part 1 of the countdown of 2016 albums I liked also noted a few individual tracks and live albums.  Before I run down the top 15 there’s a couple of notable mentions that didn’t quite qualify by my arbitrary parameters.

Avital Raz reissued her settings of James Joyce to her indian inspired music now that the copyright issues expired.  In my mind it’s not a 2016 album but it is very much worth your attention . 

As always there are a few things I missed earlier in the year that I’m belatedly catching up on but don’t know well enough to rank here. Anohni’s new work seems richer than before and more to my liking but I’ve only properly heard a couple of tracks. The same applies to Iggy Pop, whilst the singles by Pixies sound good but not as immediate as they once did. Oliver Coates, Gaye Su Akyol, Modern Studies, NZCA Lines all intrigue me enough to investigate further.  And I very belatedly learned that Thalia Zedek  has a new band called E that sound fugazi-esque. Proof if it were needed that there’s plenty of amazing and diverse music around the world if we look for it.  

So that’s the near misses. Here’s the hits.

15. Minor Victories – s/t Shoegaze anyone?  Members of Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors combine to powerful effect.  Waves of guitars and Rachel Goswell ‘s vocals sometimes blend sometimes sit above each other but consistently excellent.

14. serpent with feet – blisters another EP but one with enough ideas for a dozen lesser albums.  Josiah Wise sings personal and fraught lyrics in a bold falsetto dripping with operatic and soulful melodrama whilst producer The Haxan Cloak experiments and explores soundscapes beneath.  The result is provocative and beautiful.

13. Meilyr Jones – 2013 a glib first impression has Jones pegged as a Welsh Jarvis but whilst there is a shared self-deprecating faux awkwardness to both of their personas Jones adds a rock classicism.  Personal lyrics incorporate allusions to other artists, blurring the boundaries of art and artist.  

12. David Bowie – Blackstar as with Leonard Cohen it’s impossible to separate this from Bowie’s death.  I wasn’t the biggest of Bowie fans but from first hearing the advance tracks it was obvious this was great.  Despite the carefully selected collaborators hindsight makes it an unusually personal Bowie album.

11. 65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky a double album of songs (as much as 65dos do songs) and more abstract pieces from the video game No Man’s Sky .   Looped drums, prepared guitars, warmed electronics layer together. I’m beginning to realise that this is an album that gets more subtle with increased volume.  

10. Kojey Radical – 23 Winters This is art. Rap poetry visual art telling positive realistic revolutionary lessons. A 23 year old passing on his Ghanaian father’s wisdom with contemporary language, unusual rhythms and afro dub feel.  The sense of conversation here is what grabs me. 

9. Be – One It’s impossible to describe this Wolfgang Buttress without somehow diluting how remarkable it is. Guitars by Jason Pierce and others, Amiina’s strings & mellotron improvisation over the amplified live feed from beehives.  Droning but ever changing rhythms produce an intense meditative 4 part symphony unlike anything else you will hear.

8. Solange – A Seat At the Table her big sister maybe got more attention with Lemonade (which I liked) but this works better as an album.  In fact comparisons are a little unfair, the sisters are trying different things and both achieve their aims. Solange brings classic soul to 2016 and immediate relevant politics to the mix with great tunes and a great voice.

7. 75 Dollar Bill – Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock does what it says.  Complex percussion on minimal kit, African tuned Marquee Moon guitar freakouts lasting almost 15 minutes.  One to dance to or sit and soak up.  

6. The Comet Is Coming – Channel the Spirits serial collaborator Shabaka Hutchings brings lung busting tenor sax to a space funk party with drums that channel Tony Allen and motorik grooves in turn and wild electronics.  If Fela ever jammed with Kraftwerk and Can …maybe?

5. Beth Orton – Kidsticks more electronics (and guitars ) as Orton experiments more than her recent folkier work suggests.  There’s that gorgeous voice of course but she weaves it around tunes that echo her older work but take those echoes into strange new places. Dub and dance and pop and folk in one.  

4. Noura Mint Seymali – Arbina a Mauritanian vocal tour de force demanding better health care for women over psychedelic guitars opens this album.  Seymali updates griot traditional forms on the kora-like ardine whilst her husband’s guitar is modified to replicate Saharan sounds and swirling rock influences . 

3. Anna Meredith – Varmints OK any artist that gets people dancing to a tuba led piece deserves credit.  Meredith brings classical arrangements and dance energy together with bombast and subtleties.  The instrumental tracks continually throw in surprises like the electro hillbilly breakdown in ‘Vapours.’ The prog pop vocal pieces I was initially puzzled by grew on me.  

2. Ólafur Arnalds – Island Songs occasionally some piece of music has an impact such that you recall exactly where you heard it first.  I’d heard and enjoyed some of Arnalds pieces already but one Saturday morning lying in my tent at a festival listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show I heard ‘Öldurót’ and this album’s ranking was assured. A series of piano led and sometimes symphonic pieces inspired by islands around Iceland that are absolutely gorgeous and deeply evocative.

1. Shield Patterns – Mirror Breathing a well after midnight record if ever I heard one.  Pretty much straight in at number one from first listen. The most delicate, intricate yet ethereal, and crafted album of the year is paradoxically one of the most organic, free sounding too.  Warm electronics and deft fx seem to drift yet follow a rigorous pattern. That might be enough but then there’s Claire Brentnall’s deceptively guileless soaring vocals, like a less corporeal Kate Bush.  Richard Knox manages the neat trick too of filling these songs with sounds and leaving breathing space simultaneously.  Turn out the lights and lose yourself in this album.  

Here’s the official video for album closer ‘Glow’

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Albums of the Year 2016 pt1

Well what can I say about music in 2016.  A horrible year for losses from the legends to the lesser known and local musicians but a year for me of great gigs, amazing new discoveries and some excellent albums and individual tracks.

Floating Points whose excellent 2015 album Elaenia I heard too late for last year’s list not only played one of the live highlights of the year but released the magnificent epic single ‘Kuiper’.  Not quite enough to count as an album even at over 18 minutes but a definite high point.


Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie under his own name or as A Winged Victory For the Sullen seemed ubiquitous with new work and soundtracks but ‘The Few Of Us Left’ from the Salero soundtrack was the best.

Rozi Plain brought out an album of session tracks and remixes but led it with the deftly haunting ‘Marshes’.

I usually don’t consider live albums for these lists. They don’t often have new material even if they recast old songs in new forms.  It would be remiss of me however not to  acknowledge enjoyable and fascinating live albums from Kate Bush, Heart, Motörhead,  and Trembling Bells. Another great show this year was Public Service Broadcasting who also brought out a live album I’ve not yet heard.  A field of 5000 people cheering Jim Lovell’s voice from Apollo 8 is quite something . 

And so the countdown: all rankings approximate and fluctuating 

30. Heart – Beautiful Broken Yeah Heart.  Kicking off with the title track’s seriously chunky riffs and belting vocal into the gorgeous power ballad cover of Ne-Yo’s ‘Two’ and beyond.  

29. Case/lang /veirs – s/t that this is slightly less than the sum of its parts is purely down to the huge talents of these three incredible singers.

28. Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini for a week or two this was on repeat.  A little over hyped because of their youth but strong enough to work.  Live their dark fairy-tale lyrics & creepy teen twin image is less effective.  


27. Voivod – Post-Society technically an EP but almost 30 minutes of heavy, innovative prog thrash including an interesting cover of ‘Silver Machine’.

26. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids – We Be All Africans comeback (again) album from afro jazz veterans.  Soaring horns clash with funky drums.  

25. Dexys – Let The Record Show the cover album is usually derided as unimaginative but Kevin Rowland is no ordinary artist.  His previous album is one of the best this century, this isn’t quite that but the passion is undeniable.

24. Trembling Bells – The Wide Majestic Aire you know what you are getting with Trembling Bells. Glorious psych folk tunes.  Again just an EP or it might be higher up the list.

23. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch the clue is in the title.  Hval’s theatrical art performance and exploration of blood metaphors will repay detailed study I’m sure, but if it wasn’t musically interesting too it wouldn’t be here.

22. Hidden Orchestra – Wingbeats  experimental classical strings & electronic music taking sampled bird flights and song for its base  (and bass) 

21. Glenn Hughes – Resonate the opening track is called ‘Heavy’ and that sums up the driving theme of this album. Hughes is heavy but soulful and his band do a convincing updated Deep Purple.

20. Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada Sahrawi refugee Brahim is one of the strongest contemporary voices and an important West African figure. Her bluesy blend of traditional and modern backs political & human lyrics.

19. Salena Godden – Live Wire live performance poetry that is as passionate as it is crude as it is outspoken politically as it is jazzy as it is funny as it is moving. 

18. Cowtown – Paranormal Romance Leeds’ DIY jagged punk that says what it came to say clearly and refuses to outstay its welcome.  Where more hyped bands like Cabbage have a whiff of gimmick, Cowtown are witty and sharp.


17. William Bell – This Is Where I Live classic Stax in 2016 ? Yes please. The hugely underrated Mr Bell doesn’t sound 77 on this gorgeous soul record.

16. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker he knew it was coming and in his generosity he shared his wisdom and grace.  That voice got richer to match.  The title track especially is amongst his finest songs.  

(Part two the top 15 will follow soon)

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Leonard Cohen in 1988 at the RAH.

I remember it well, a cheap Bloomsbury hotel (and we’ll leave that line there…)

It was one of those nights, made of music, chance and love that come occasionally and rarely. It’s cold tonight and the world aches for many  reasons but I have a memory of hope that will have to do until true hope emerges again.

She was my first real girlfriend and we’d managed to get away for a couple of parentless nights in London.  I don’t recall that we had planned anything except the opportunity to share some private intimacy unrushed.  We found a cheap hotel and a copy of Time Out and that Leonard Cohen was in town.

She wasn’t the one to introduce me to Cohen but together our listening habits grew. ‘Winter Lady’ I suddenly remember was her favourite.  

We had to ask directions to the Royal Albert Hall but we got there, two young people more naive than we knew.  There were tickets available on the door.  “£9 for a restricted view or £12 for good seats.”  This, history tells me, was the start of a resurgence in Cohen’s popularity in the UK but we I think were a little surprised at a choice of tickets.  

We took the good seats.  The woman on the box office directed us. “Up the stairs to the left, door number 3.”  Only when we entered door 3 did we realise the obvious.  This was the Royal Albert Hall and we had a box.  There were four seats but nobody joined us.

Of course the view was great and the acoustics too.  The band entered and then the man in the suit.  “Dance Me To The End of Love” I remember as the opener. It remains one of my favourites but I don’t know what I remember of that performance. It was too soon in the set I was still stunned.  

We don’t always think enough on the musicians beside the great songwriters. A few songs in John Bilezikjian played an extended melodic introduction on the oud before “Who By Fire.”  The delicate picking offering space to the incantatory lyrics.

I remember asking my girlfriend what one song was, it was from an album I didn’t know so well back then.  “The Gypsy’s Wife” she whispered. 

And at one point a voice shouted a request.  Someone replied “Shut up!” 

Cohen paused “Are you speaking to me or to your friend?” Gently chiding with the gravitas of that voice and his distinctive wry self-deprecation.  

From our box we saw the band laid out beside the singer, participants in the waltz.  I may be projecting from 28 years later but it feels like there was when I began to understand how songs breathe.  “Bird On A Wire”, “Everybody Knows”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” that we now loved in Jennifer Warnes’ cover.  The backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, beautiful and slinky in little black dresses alongside the handsome man in a suit, had a musical chemistry with Cohen. I remember glances between them.  And later I recall a Tanita Tikaram interview where she talked about this same concert and observed that she was sure he was sleeping with at least one of the singers.  

But then he spoke and you could hear his smile:

About a thousand years ago I was living in a hotel in New York City. A brief murmur of anticipation. Those were simple times. In the mornings and in the evenings I used to ride the elevators. It was about the only technology I could master in those days. Laughter. 

After a while I began to notice a young woman riding the same elevators and she seemed to take the same pleasure in pushing the buttons as I did.  After a few days I picked up the courage to ask her:

“Little lady, are you looking for somebody?”

And she replied: “Yes. I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.”

A wave of laughter sympathetic to Cohen’s self-deprecating plight.  

“Little lady, ” I said, “you’re in luck. I’m Kris Kristofferson.”  Cheers now.

Well those were generous times, and she didn’t let on that she knew I wasn’t tall enough to be Kris Kristofferson.  

A few years later I was sitting in a bar in Miami, the sort of place with palm trees all down the street but they serve the drinks in plastic coconut shells. The sort of place I hope I never bump into you.  Thanks, I think.

That young woman’s presence came back to me strongly and I wrote this song for Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel.

I don’t know if it was common knowledge that “Chelsea Hotel #2” is about Janis but it was new to me and to my girlfriend.  It remains a favourite from that night for that introduction. 

What else do I remember? It was the I’m Your  Man tour and Cohen seemed (from a distance to make eye contact with women in the front rows during the supllicatory title song.  His whispers built and filled the hall for “Tower of Song” then the band took over to swirl through “Take This Waltz.”

There was an interval after which Cohen performed a couple of songs solo. “The Partisan” and others.  More classics, “Suzanne” of course, and “Hallelujah” though that was just another great Leonard Cohen song. (“He changed the words” my girlfriend noticed.)

There were others, encores and applause and a prayer in song poetry “If It Be Your Will.”

I remember we barely spoke as we left the auditorium. Walking to the tube people seemed stilled by the experience. I remember that feeling. 

It was June 1988 and the relationship with that girlfriend barely made it into the following year. That’s all, I don’t think of her that often.

The night we saw Mr Cohen, I can’t forget.  Thank you sir.  Goodnight. 

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McTavish Manor – Inés G. Labarta

(Holland House Novella 2016, 136pp, £7.99)

McTavish Manor is a new Gothic novella from Lancaster based Spanish author Inés G. Labarta that takes old forms and blends in new techniques to produce fascinating & original results. 

Set in the eponymous remote Highlands house in 1803, McTavish Manor initially adopts the classic Gothic epistolary framework.  Dr. Charles Bisland flees a rejected proposal to find work with the increasingly strange McTavish family.  We see the household first through the Doctor whose own secrets are hinted at, then through the  black maidservant who Mrs McTavish calls “my dubh” and in the journals of McTavish herself.  As winter isolation progresses so does the madness in the household.   The dubh is attacked by wolves, the lecherous scullion assaults the maid, and the Mother indulges her scientific curiosity to explain all.

Bisland ‘s chapters become increasingly desperate, pleading in self-justification for unstated transgression. The dubh invokes Yoruba mythology and hints at a stolen slave history.  Her febrile descriptions of events she sees part of are scattered with French, Spanish and Yoruba phrases. The Mother uses gaelic, not just dubh but Mr McTavish is always mo duine.  References to scientific substances, techniques and historical texts in Latin abound.  This is not a simple read.  

Yet for all the details Labarta includes there’s no dryness.  There’s attempted scientific evidence explanation for the violent episodes “hydrophobia” for example.  Mrs McTavish is depicted almost as an obsessive like Victor Frankenstein, though perhaps Angus Cauldhame  or Al Binewski are better examples from contemporary fiction.  

Labarta uses different prose styles to both distinguish her viewpoints and to develop a nightmarish and visionary display.  Words and even long paragraphs are struck through, the multiple languages are undefined, historic scientific terms are in the regular vocabulary.  Labarta’s references are to that transitionary era where alchemy was supplanted by science. The doctor has history with Edward Jenner. She quotes  traditional Scottish folk songs in Gaelic and invocations or prayers in Yoruba and expects her readers to understand.  The result is complex and I think deliberately ambiguous.  

Who and what is the villain? The rabid wild dogs? The bhampair of the cook’s hysteria? Mad scientist Mrs McTavish with her monstrous experiments on her own family? The blood obsessed Doctor with the disgraced past and the reliance on poppies? The servant convinced of orishas and abiku controlling the rest?  Even a final letter doesn’t quite clear things up, suggesting instead various further twists.  

The traditional Gothic incorporates an element of transgression, whether social, sexual or scientific.  Labarta has all of these entangled.  Scenes of raging insanity abut dark and illicit eroticism and taboo scientific questing.  The result inverts Dracula’s classic playing of several symbolic roles to have roles played across several individuals to disorienting, but gripping effect.

I drove his bloody hands all all over my body  until I was blessed in crimson. Lust bit inside when I brought them between my legs. I moved my hips forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.  (p80)

Hunterian solution

Oil of turpentine 5 pt

Venice turpentine 1 pt 

Oil of lavender 2 oz 

Oil of rosemary 2 oz 

Vermillion 

We have to wait one day.

The twins sleep.  One in the cellar, the other in my bed.

Later. We do not have enough cinnamon. I am substituting ginger. (p74-5)

There will be no metaphors in this letter, no allegories or similar artifices, only the raw truth about your cousin’s miserable soul, which started to fall into corruption the very first time he confronted the Highlands & the rain threatened to dissolve his rational mind. She was there, an ebony body that does not belong to this land where sun is so scarce. You told me about her in Edinburgh, a mysterious, fascinating servant, exotic and lacquered as a scorpion. (p85)

Inés Labarta’s control of language is exquisite and precise, distinguishing characters and situations, and allowing for frenetic action and atmospheric revelations.  Her characters each have implicit back stories that intrigue but don’t quite explain everything.  Her plot a bouillabaisse of Gothic tropes with a multicultural and modern seasoning.  

McTavish Manor is a significant new addition to contemporary Gothic literature.

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Two That Came True – Judith Moffett

Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career.  ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies.  Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here.  ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.

‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society.  The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child, and author of a book about Sally.  They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of ‘that book’, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.

By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees.  After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship.  Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.

As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong.  She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee.  Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.

Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting.  Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.  

The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s.  Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.  

The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.
‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a ‘First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop.’ Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.  

A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. 68 year old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.

The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..  

This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs.  For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support.  Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths.  She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.

‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to.  There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee.  There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison.  As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.

Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume exited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for  Pennterra .  There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in,  issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular.  Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.  

Both stories in Two That Came  True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry.  She was a poet long before turning to fiction.  These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre.  The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work.  It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed.  Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.  

It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story.  Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.

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