Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

To woodcock (verb)

Posted: September 30, 2017 in language, Life, Music
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Earlier this week Ian (bf) and I went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in concert at Nottingham Ice Arena. Cave has long been one of my favourite songwriters, and it was an awesome concert.

But before it began we had a lengthy wait in our seats. At one point, Ian discreetly drew my attention to a guy sitting in the next row, reading his kindle while he waited.

‘Look,’ Ian said. ‘He’s woodcocking.’

This is a relatively common occurrence in our lives. Ian is always astonished when he finds someone not of my clan displaying the same behaviours he finds so particular to my sisters and I. I believe he shares his observations with my sister’s husband. Possibly they titter.

To woodcock now has at least four distinct meanings, according to Ian.

Woodcock (verb):

  1. to use every pot and pan in the kitchen in the preparation of one meal.
  2. to take any opportunity to go for a wee, whether you want one or not.
  3. to blink when your photograph is taken.
  4. to carry a book wherever you go, and fit in a quick read at any and every opportunity.

I suppose it’s oddly pleasing to be made into a verb, however irreverent the intention. But it’s also strange to find that behaviours you take for granted as absolutely normal can seem less so to other people.

I kind of hope woodcocking one day makes its way into your dictionary.

emma in robot mask

I have learned to mitigate for woodcocking (3) tendencies by wearing a mask.

The following is an edited transcript of an illustrated talk I gave at Inspired at Wirksworth Festival on Tuesday 19th September 2017.

I’m going to talk about a piece of art that was a very direct inspiration to me. But also about some of the other ideas and influences which fed into the creative process, and helped to shape what eventually became my second novel. I want to show the sometimes meandering route that inspiration can take, the seeming dead-ends, and the role chance can play in tying a lot of disparate ideas together.

Seven years ago, in October 2010, I’d recently published my first novel, Darklands, and I finally had time to think about what I was going to write next. I had it in my head I’d like to write a ghost story. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always enjoyed the creepy and macabre.

I did some initial research. I took a field trip to an Elizabethan manor house, Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, which boasts not one, but three, priest holes.

A priest hole is a small hidden room where Catholic priests could hide to avoid persecution during a time when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. This was because of various Catholic plots against the life of Elizabeth I. Catholicism was considered high treason, and punishments could include torture and death. When the authorities came round, a priest might have to hide in one of these cramped spaces in the dark for hours, or even days, before he could be safely released.

I’m sure you can imagine the creepy and sinister potential of a forgotten priest hole in a ghost story.

So I had a few ideas, and some atmospheric material from my field trip, but I didn’t yet have a story.

One day I was driving to work, and listening to the radio, as usual, and I heard Anatoly Lyadov’s tone poem, Kikimora.

Pleasant though it was, I can’t say it actually grabbed me that much at the time (though I’ve listened to it a lot since, and love it more each time). But what particularly struck me that day was after the music finished the presenter read out Lyadov’s program notes about Kikimora.

This is what he wrote.

“She grows up with a magician in the mountains. From dawn to sunset the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places, as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk to dawn, with evil intentions for the world.”

As soon as I heard those words it was a story I wanted to read. It conjures so much that is familiar from the kind of stories I loved when I was growing up, from fairy tales and folk tales.

Kikimora grows up with a magician – like so many iconic protagonists. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, like The Once and Future King, like many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books: Howl’s Moving Castle, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The magician’s cat can speak – like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Like Aslan. And, again, there are many examples in Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

The cat tells endless stories – like Sherazade in 1001 nights.

Kikimora’s head is no larger than a thimble – bringing to mind classic fairy tales, like Thumbelina or Tom Thumb.

And like Rumpelstiltskin, she spins flax.

With just a few words Lyadov has summoned a storm of associations and memories – treasured memories from childhood, of the magical, fantastical stories I loved best, and that transported me to other lands and other lives.

But then right at the end, he gives it a twist: she has evil intentions for the world. So is she the heroine of this story, or is she the villain?

I wanted to find out. So I searched online for books about Kikimora – and I found nothing. She had a mention in a couple of books on Russian and Slavic folklore, and a wikipedia page, but I could find absolutely no fiction in English that mentioned her.

14-Kikimora

Kikimora, 1934 illustration by Ivan Bilibin

I found it incredible that seemingly no one had picked up on this gem of a story, when it seemed to me so ripe, so full of potential. I decided that I would write her story.

I read what little I could find on Kikimora. She’s a figure from Slavic folklore, a kind of household spirit. She often lives behind the stove, and helps good, respectable housewives who leave out offerings for her, but plays tricks on mean or slovenly households.

In reading about her, I found other fascinating figures from Slavic folklore, and they also found their way into my story. Such as Leshy. Leshy is a spirit or god of the forest. Like Kikimora he can be kind or troublesome, depending how he is treated. He can shape-shift, and can be very temperamental.

Leshy

Leshy, from a magazine cover, 1906. I’ve been unable to find the artist’s name.

Rusalkas also feature in my story. If you’re not familiar with Rusalkas, they’re basically a Slavic, fresh-water mermaid. They live in the water, are very beautiful, and lure unwary men to their death.

But again, they are not always seen as evil in early traditions. And I think this ambiguity in all these folklore characters is a large part of what appeals to me about them. They are largely reactive – they treat humans according to how humans treat them. And that seems a very obvious, but still very powerful way to view the natural world – which I think is essentially the purpose of a lot of folklore. In a pre-scientific and pre-industrial age, to try and make sense of the often cruel and capricious world around us.

These Slavic characters may well be unfamiliar to you, and you might wonder why I was so drawn to them and their stories. How could they mean anything to me?

But although their names are unfamiliar, there is much about them that is familiar. There is a universality in these characters which transcends their origin. The same tropes and archetypes are evident throughout British folklore, European fairy tales, and mythologies from all around the world.

Rusalkas have obvious parallels in mermaids, sirens, kelpies – our more local versions, Jenny Greenteeth or the grindylow.

In British folklore, we have our own versions of household spirits, like Hobs or brownies – or Dobby the house elf.

When I was growing up my family had our very own version: Icky. I’ve no idea where the name came from, but whenever something went missing or a mess was made that no one would own up to, we said it must have been Icky.

Even the very fact of being Russian seems kind of familiar. The Brothers Grimm collected their fairy tales from all over Europe – including Russia. And many of the most evocative and beautiful fairy tale illustrations have a Russian flavour to them. Such as the works of Jan Pienkowski or Edmund Dulac.

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

So I gathered a great amount of inspiration from these folk characters. I had Kikimora, my protagonist’s, origin story in the quote from Lyadov, and I had a sense of conflict or unease between humans and the natural world.

The inspiration that had eluded me when I was trying to write a ghost story came flooding in. I was very close to having a story. But one more ingredient came along which directed the course of the novel.

I mentioned at the beginning that it was October 2010. If you remember, it was during that time that 33 miners were trapped deep underground in a copper mine in Chile. By then the men had been trapped for two months. Their story gripped the public imagination, and it gripped me just as much as everyone else.

I have long had a mingled horror and fascination for underground spaces. There is something primal about being deep underground – think of the neolithic cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira.

cave paintings at Lascaux

cave paintings at Lascaux

The common interpretation of these paintings is that they serve some sort of spiritual or ritual purpose.

Think of hidden caverns where incredible, gigantic crystals grow, such as Naica cave in Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico. Look at the size of these crystals. It’s like Superman’s fortress of solitude!

Underground places can be beautiful, awe-inspiring.

But they are also dangerous, and frightening on a very primal level. All that weight of earth and rock balanced above you. The fear of your only light being extinguished – of the utter, pitiless darkness. Of being trapped. Lost. Alone. Being unaware of anything happening outside the cave – say, torrential rain that could flood the caves before you know a thing about it.

When those Chilean miners were finally safely rescued it seemed the whole world breathed a sigh of relief.

All of these things fed into the story I eventually wrote.

And in the end, I did write a sort of ghost story, without realising it. My version of Kikimora creeps around someone else’s home, silent and invisible, doing mischief, throwing things on the floor and causing trouble. Just like a poltergeist.

I even used the idea of being trapped in the dark – albeit, being trapped underground, rather than the priest hole I was initially researching.

I used characters and tropes from folklore and fairy tales – but they are very much my own personal take on those characters.

I seasoned it with the mingled terror and awe I feel about underground spaces.

And of course, in any story there must be conflict. In this case, another of my preoccupations, the conflict between humans and nature, between technological advancement and the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story about writing a story.

I include below a short excerpt from Kikimora.

To set the scene, Anatoly is a powerful magician. He lives in splendid isolation in the mountains of Korsakov forest. Every month he plays cards with his friends, Leshy and the North Wind, and they stay up very late, drinking lots of vodka and setting the world to rights, as men are inclined to do.

Between them they try to ensure the natural world is all in order, and things are kept in balance. But they are disturbed by the activities of some miners from the nearby town, who are encroaching on the forest, and don’t show the proper respect.

During one drunken night they hatch a plan to deal with the miners by creating a monster. This Anatoly does, but his plan goes awry from the start.

He names his monster Kikimora.

Excerpt from Kikimora

Kikimora gathered up her embroidery to finish in the pantry. It was cold in there, but that had never troubled her. She was a creature of the cold, and though she enjoyed the comfort of a crackling fire, her resilience to Korsakov’s bitter winters was remarkable. She had never owned a pair of shoes, nor felt their lack.

She was almost at the door, when the North Wind said, “Wait. How old are you now, girl?”

“Almost seven.”

Anatoly’s long fingers fumbled as he filled the glasses, which all clinked and rattled against one another.

“Has it been so long?” asked the North Wind in some surprise. “Surely it is time?”

Anatoly swallowed his vodka at a gulp. “There is still much I would teach her. Her reading is sorely neglected. She has not yet begun The Art of War-”

The North Wind snorted his disdain. “She might have completed all the reading even you could wish for years ago if you didn’t have her working as your skivvy all the day long! I heard your banshee wail,” he told Kikimora. “It wasn’t too bad. What else can you do? Can you sour the milk with an evil thought?”

Kikimora nodded.

“Can you hide from human eyes? Creep past men silent and unnoticed?” Two more nods.

“Can you send bad dreams to trouble the sleep of man, woman or child?”

She hesitated.

“Well?”

“I have no one on which to practice such a skill.”

The North Wind frowned and harrumphed. “What of that cat I’ve seen around the place? Surely you could disturb its sleep?”

Kikimora’s eyes grew wide at this suggestion, and Anatoly muttered that it was more than any of their lives were worth to interfere with the cat.

Leshy took a bite of cake, and exclaimed at its sweetness. Washing it down with a mouthful of vodka, he added that he’d never tasted finer spirit. Kikimora knew he was trying to cheer her up, and she summoned a smile to show she appreciated it.

“Congratulations,” the North Wind said sourly. “Your monster is a fine cook and house-keeper. How those men will tremble in their boots.”

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

The close relationship between music and magic

First published December 2012 on The Speculative Salon.

At fifteen I was 5’8”, all knees and elbows, with a big mane of dyed red hair and army boots half way up my calf. I had started to learn the cello only a couple of years earlier. I was 12th (last) cello in the county youth orchestra, sandwiched awkwardly between the double basses and a gaggle of tiny eight year old cellists all far more accomplished players than me.

Consequently I felt ever so slightly conspicuous as I guessed at tuning my instrument, struggled to find my place in the score, and fudged my way through rehearsal after rehearsal. Despite a week’s intense practice I didn’t get much better, and my confidence plummeted. I was so worried about playing the wrong thing and ruining the piece, that when it came to the eventual performance at Buxton Opera House I mimed through most of it.

I gave up the cello shortly after that. I have grudgingly had to accept that I am just not a musical person. No one in my family is musical. Words are our thing. And food.

The Power To Mesmerise

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Those who are musically gifted seem very mysterious. I view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and a sort of distrust – they must be witches! How else could they control and harness that amazing power, and bend it to their will?

I feel it as a terrible loss in my life that I’m not musical. I love music – all kinds of music. But I don’t understand it in the least. What is a fugue? A partita? A canon? A gigue? What is the difference between a rhapsody and a fantasy? A concerto and a symphony? What makes something a prelude? Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun always confused me. I expected there to be a longer piece called ‘The Afternoon of a Faun.’ There isn’t.

When I used to sit at the back of the orchestra I couldn’t hear myself play. I had no idea how to pick my own sound out from the multitude of sounds around me. I had no idea if I was in tune, or if I was in time…

The ability to make music; to create one beautiful sound and then to weave it around other sounds, and to build a coherent, wonderful whole seems hardly less astonishing to me than the ability to move objects with the power of the mind.

Given this wonder and envy, it is perhaps not surprising that I have allied music with magic in much of my writing. In Darklands, Inkling is a powerful magician with a particular affinity for music. But he doesn’t play a violin, a flute or a piano. He plays the wind. He plays the dry grasses and the branches of trees. He sends the wind whistling around sculpted rocks, creating fluttering arpeggios. He conjures a soft, shushing rhythm from the treetops, and a mournful, clattering tune from living bamboo.

In my work in progress, a musician unwittingly exerts power over the ghostly protagonist, Kikimora. Her magical powers weaken whenever she hears him play, and she becomes visible to humans – which causes problems for them both.

His Inhuman Skill

Music has a long history of association with the uncanny, the fae, the devilish. One of the best known and most evocative examples must be the Pied Piper bewitching the children of Hamlin with his playing, and leading them astray. Celtic lore has fairies closely tied with musicians, particularly pipers. Musicians are far more likely than other mortals to be taken to fairy land.

Some, such as the blind 17th century harpist, Turlough O’Carolan, were said to acquire their musical prowess after spending a night on the fairy knoll.

This echoes the story of the violinist, Nicolo Paganini, widely believed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his inhuman skill and virtuosity. Early Blues musician Robert Johnson was similarly said to have sold his soul to the Devil – down at the Crossroads.

Both of these musicians knew a good story when they heard one, and they played up the unearthly aspect of their personas – Paganini by growing long wings of hair, and dressing all in black, Robert Johnson by singing such songs as Hellhound on my Trail, Me and the Devil, and Crossroads Blues.

And let’s not forget the role music has played in religion down the ages, from Gregorian chants, via plainsong, liturgy and mass, to American gospel music and beyond. Would religion grip the hearts and souls of so many without the uncanny power of music in its arsenal?

To Muddle And Misplace

Some music is so evocative of a certain time, mood or place that just hearing a short passage transports you instantly back there. Much of our unconscious musical associations come from film and TV. There is a certain type of English romantic music (typified by Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending) which never fails to make me yearn for an idyllic rural past that probably never existed. This is thanks to its use in countless period dramas on TV: Tess of the D’urbervilles; the Mill on the Floss, Precious Bane.

Another well used piece is the thrillingly dramatic Carmina Burana, which conjures everything from King Arthur’s knights riding into battle (Excaliber) to demonic murder (The Omen) to sexual ecstacy (The Doors).

Powerful music has the ability to imprint a mood into your soul; a mood which can be instantly recalled by hearing the music again. On a more humdrum level this is demonstrated when we hear music from our youth and become misty eyed over all the memories and associations it brings back – even music you didn’t like at the time.

When I was sixteen Brit-pop was all the rage; everyone loved Oasis – but I thought they were boring and whiny and not a patch on Sonic Youth or Pixies. I hear Oasis now and I don’t remember how I used to complain about them and groan and roll my eyes. I remember how it felt to be sixteen, and think that the world was my oyster; to not wake up every morning with back ache; to be full of hope and dreams and chutzpah that hadn’t yet been tempered by dusty reality…

But hang on – is that really what it was like? Or is the music fooling me? Didn’t I spend much of my teenage years paranoid and miserable? Didn’t I spend long hours obsessing about my intense ugliness, the dullness of my life, and dreaming that one day things would be better?

Music can deceive. It can muddle and misplace, and convince you of things that never were.

It can also inspire. Artists of every sort find inspiration in music. Marcus Sedgwick has described how Midwinter Blood is based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My above-mentioned work in progress, Kikimora, was directly inspired by a ‘fairytale for orchestra’ of the same name by Anatoly Lyadov.

Magic

Music can be mind-altering, reality-altering. It can affect the listener mentally, physically and spiritually. It can transport you through time and space. It can unlock memories long forgotten; it can sometimes trick us into believing things that never happened.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.


This post was first published in December 2012 on The Speculative Salon. I have reproduced it here as I have something to add.

Thanks to Howard Goodall’s excellent Story of Music I now do know the difference between a symphony and a concerto,* and much more besides! If you haven’t seen the six part BBC TV series, I thoroughly recommend looking it up. Goodall is excellent at explaining musical concepts. Admittedly some of it goes over my head a bit. But then, so do books about string theory and the quantum universe. I read them anyway, because each time I try to understand I get a bit closer to actually doing so.

Howard Goodall, I salute you!

* A concerto showcases one particular instrument with the rest of the orchestra as backup.

back on that horse

Get back on that horse! [photo credit: http://www.hollisranch.com ]

I am indeed back on that horse, the mardiness of 2012’s dying embers all but forgotten.

I have been making good progress with the second draft of Kikimora. I had wanted to crack on with the major rewrite of the crisis that kicks off the climax – but had to admit temporary defeat on that one. It’s been so long since I got properly stuck into it that I didn’t have a good enough handle on the characters and their (constantly edited into different shapes) relationships. So I went back to the beginning, reading through my last round of changes, and adding in some further refinements.

When I did my first draft read-through I thought the second half of the story was WAY better than the first half (which is worse than the other way around cuz once you’re suckered in you’re quite likely to continue reading. But if you aren’t sucked in fairly swiftly, then you will likely put it aside). I made a lot of changes, adding extra scenes and slowing down the story to give the characters more room to grow.

Reading it back this week I was really pleased with the improvements. I’ve also now smoothed over some of the bumps that inevitably arise when you’re chopping chapters into pieces and redistributing chunks of prose here and conversations there – and some of the continuity errors. It’s been really good to get back to it. I need to maintain this pace and enthusiasm into the new year in order to get a readable draft out by the spring.

I normally go to work monday – wednesday, leaving thursday and friday for writing (and weekends to see my family). It’s hard financially, but I have always valued my time more highly than money. The financial demands of Christmas and an ambitiously expensive holiday last year meant that I spent much of autumn working overtime instead of writing (which I’m sure had a bit to do with my New Year melt-down). This year I am determined to tighten my belt and just NOT SPEND ANY MONEY for as long as it takes to get back on an even financial footing.

I want to keep my writing days in tact, so that the story remains fresh in my head each week, and I don’t have to waste time reading back through several chapters to remember what I’m doing..!

So far it’s going well. And I have a new secret weapon in my arsenal: whenever I’m feeling insufficiently Russian,* I listen to Prokofiev’s marvellously evocative and rousing cantata, Alexander Nevsky 🙂 The only problem is that sometimes I get a little distracted – especially during The Battle on Ice.

Seriously, people,  give it a listen. I’d say it’s up there with Carmina Burana** in the bonkers, rousing, orchestral/choral stakes!

* Kikimora is very loosely based on Slavic folklore, and on Anatoly Lyadov’s Fairy tale for orchestra, Kikimora (yes, I listen to that for inspiration too. But it’s only eight minutes long, and I’ve been writing this book for two years…!)

** You should check out that link too. It’s the “misheard lyrics” version. Genius 😀

I have a guest post up today on the Speculative Salon about the often close relationship between music and magic.

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Music Pink and Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Music: Pink and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, picture courtesy of, http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/georgia-o%27-keeffe

Below is an additional thought on the wholeness, the completeness of music, which I didn’t manage to fit into the piece.

One of my favourite fantasy series growing up was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I love the strangeness, the grotesqueness of the characters and settings. I love that it was all very recognisable, but at the same time indefinably other.

Gormenghast is the name of a castle and its immediate environs; forest, mountain, river. As well as the noble family – the delightfully named Groans – it houses a school, a museum/art gallery, a library, a doctor, a poet, various funcionaries and an encampment of serfs. It is an utterly self-contained and fully realised little world – but there is one important omission.

In three books, spanning 17 years or so, I don’t recall a single mention of music. Ever*. Not even a trumpet fanfare during one of the interminable, pointless ceremonies Lord Groan is forced to enact daily.

I find that astonishing. And the world of Gormenghast is slightly reduced in my eyes due to its lack. I can believe in a castle where a hideous but charismatic kitchen boy scales his tower prison, and seduces the daughter of the house in her secret attic; that he sees a horse bathing in a rooftop pool on the way; that a silent waif floats through the forest, as light as air; that a strange Countess prefers to spend time with a white rook than her own newborn baby. But a world without music? I find that hard to conceive of.

World building is hard. There is so much to think of, so many details to consider, so many relationships and histories to get right. It’s hardly surprising that sometimes a piece of the world gets completely forgotten. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has read fantasy books and thought, “But what about the —- ?”

* Disclaimer: Although I have read the Gormenghast series three or four times, the last time was over 14 years ago. It is possible I have forgotten some musical interlude tucked away in there somewhere. I think the Doctor does sing a song about a frivolous cake one time while soaking in the bath, but that hardly makes up for an entire castle devoid of music and musical instruments!

Reading an interview with John Dyer Baizley (artist, and Baroness lead guitarist) made me recall just how often I studied his cover for Baroness’ Red Album while writing Darklands.

I can’t even pinpoint what it is about that painting that speaks to me so eloquantly. The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s fairy land – the sinster and cruel fairy land of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Stange and Mr Norrel. But also the mysterious and magical fairy land of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

The disc of bound birds are reminiscent of the Fates spinning their wheel, and the threads of human life, indiferent to desires or pleas.

The poppies suggest a drugged, dreamlike hyperreality. Some of them spew strings of white… stuff. Milk of the poppy, I guess. But coupled with all those phallic looking insects and the tadpole-shaped patterns in the background, suggest other stuff too.

The painting is beautiful, and horrific. The two women seem at once bored, indifferent, judgemental, powerful, dangerous, sexual… but likely to have the appetites of preying mantisses. Their cold, dead eyes look out at you with no mercy, their muscular arms at odds with their vulpine, vampiric faces.

Perhaps that is the crux of fairy land? That intoxicating mixture of allure and danger? Knowing that you should stay away, but helplessly drawn in by the beauty and wonder?

I like Dyer Baizley’s other artwork too, but the Red Album has a special place in my affections. I can look at it for hours, wondering about those two figures with their sceptre of bird skulls, crown of insects and necklace of finger bones; wondering what their story is…