Sunday 7 February 2016

Octavia Flora Fabian (1920–2015)

I recently learned of the sad passing of a former collaborator of ours. Octavia Flora Fabian was known as “Tavie” to her friends (although there’s little agreement on the spelling, since it was mainly a spoken diminutive), but always “Mrs. Fabian” in correspondence, and of course, now famous as “Flora Fabiana” in print publication. This variance in nomenclature was both evidence of her concern for privacy (her family asked that no photos of her be posted) and separation between different roles and circles, and symbolic of the facets of her personality that sometimes seem at odds with one another.

Tavie married Edgar Fabian in 1946, and they remained childless until his death from heart disease in 1980. It was apparently at about this time that Tavie stopped volunteering at the local church, which seems to have been her main activity for all of her married life, since she never took a job. She lived on Edgar’s modest pension for the next few years, but by 1994 her physical health had deteriorated and she chose to take up residence in a care home for the elderly, which she paid for from an investment account she created from the sale of their small house. This account comfortably supported her for the 21 remaining years of her life.

Fearing boredom and mental decline, Tavie asked her niece Jasmine to buy her a typewriter so she could write “articles and stories.” Worried that a typewriter would be too noisy in the close confines of the care home, Jasmine instead prevailed on her son Tony to give his great-aunt an old Compaq laptop PC instead. It was Tony Michael who taught Tavie to use the computer, some years later set her up with an internet account, and periodically updated her laptop with a new hand-me-down model every few years.

Tavie seems to have written prolifically, although she also erased most of her early work when it ceased to be of interest to her, and seldom kept files that she was not intending to publish. Still in the 1990s she began to study at the Open University for a BA in English Language and Literature, and although she never completed the degree, she began to write many short works of criticism and literary biography at this time. She had a talent for digging out little-known but important writers to profile critically and professionally, especially women who wrote on topics or in genres that were more common for men.

Due to her scholarly interest in gothic, fairytale, suspense, and early pulp writers, Tavie’s work naturally found a home in the genre press, especially fanzines and online publications. It was in this capacity that I first corresponded with her, as she was researching women whose names appeared in golden age pulp zines but for whom biographies or later careers were unknown. She wrote a few short reviews for TFF back in the ’oughties, before we were archiving the site, and she had an obvious zest for both library, archive and internet research into the genealogy and bibliography of her subjects.

The first hint of media recognition for Tavie came when she wrote her groundbreaking profile of Emily Goldhill Kenzie, whose short SF mystery “The Airlock” (1950) in Super Science Stories was all anyone else had previously been able to find of her (along with the tenacious but unsubstantiated—and unexplained—rumour that she once publicly slapped Ejler Jakobsson in the face). Tavie had discovered more details about Kenzie than most of us could find about our own great-grandmother in family history research—although she was of course restrained and respectful in how much she included in her profile. Albeit among a small group of critics and editors to begin with, Tavie’s reputation as a serious researcher in the history of speculative fiction was cemented.

After a series of low-profile but impressive critical biographies of obscure writers, Tavie’s real breakthrough came when she apparently tracked down not only the ToC but the entire fiction contents of the inaugural issue of Whatifn’t magazine (1.1 – 1968), whose first dozen issues were assumed completely lost. She wrote detailed reviews of several of the stories, including a rare late SF story by John Moore that she characterized as “proto-eco-SF,” and a reprint of “one of the weaker” Cordwainer Smith stories. No one else has seen the issue Tavie worked from, and she never clarified whether she found a physical copy or a scan; either way she presumably didn’t keep it.

Three TitansA turning point in this low-key but increasingly exciting career came when Tavie reviewed for a US-based speculative fiction review, an obscure, independently published chapbook titled Three Titans. This slim volume of less than fifty pages, which her review gives no indication of being satirical or otherwise doubtful, purports to publish, for the first time and all together, the final stories by each of John Jacob Astor IV, Jacques Futrelle and W. T. Stead, three SF writers who died in the wreck of the Titanic in 1912. The review is masterful: the stories are all typical of the authors’ respective oeuvres and styles, their flaws are dissected critically but with consideration of their age, and they are all put into the context of their literary surroundings, as well as each other (Astor and Futrelle at least were friends). The only problem was, no one else has ever been able to identify either this modern chapbook or any of the stories in it. Once people started to try, it soon became clear that either the chapbook was itself a pastiche or, more likely, that Tavie had invented it herself for the express purpose of this fabricated review.

We must not forget that at the same time as these increasingly suspicious works of criticism were starting to receive attention, Tavie was still putting out an impressive stream of indubitably genuine reviews, profiles and literary studies (she was after all retired, and writing about genre fiction was her main hobby). She never confirmed or denied that some of her reviews and other articles were fraudulent, even when a couple of crusading fans for a while made it their mission in life to expose and discredit her. With no social media presence or publicly available email address, she was pretty much immune to any harassment that might have ensued, and the zealous “investigators” quickly lost interest. Tavie continued to review, and no doubt to invent, genre authors and works, until only a few months before her death.

Among the more surprising titles Tavie wrote about was an early issue of the psychological, gore and dark crime magazine Shadowed Dreams in 2007, which she analyzed at some depth without ever saying whether the darker stories were to her taste or not. She wrote a short retrospective of the work of eclectic author and editor Tadala Linn, in which she recasts what most reviewers have seen as an eccentric taste in unpredictable supernatural themes as a virtue, as injecting a dose of surrealism into dark fantasy. She wrote a detailed account of C.L. Moore’s unpublished diaries and juvenilia, and how it prefigures many of the themes of her published work.

Through it all, Tavie retained her kindness and generosity, her playfulness and willingness to explore new genres, her obsession with the obscure and the underrepresented. She was a valuable and insightful reviewer, and she deserves to be remembered as one of the most creative authors in the last two decades of the speculative small press, even though she never published a single work labelled as fiction.

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