Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Phantoms at the Phil
Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Literary and Philosophical Society and the adjacent Mining Institute are both venerable, dignified institutions, but I got in anyway. I was there with my friend Mike (a member of the Lit & Phil) to enjoy ghost story readings for Twelfth Night. Phantoms at the Phil, as this spooksome event is known, has been going for a good few years. But circumstances entirely within my control, such as laziness and stupidity, meant that this was the first time I'd attended. So it was with some curiosity that I parked myself in the Institute's lecture theatre and waited for the lights to dim. Which, after some trouble with a plug for the lectern lamp, they did.
The three reader-authors were leading poet Sean O'Brien, art historian and vampire expert Gail-Nina Anderson, and the event's organiser Chaz Brenchley, the thriller writer's thriller writer. There was a large-ish and appreciative audience, many of whom had clearly 'been here before' (in a good way). It was also a rather diverse audience - it's pleasant to be sure that you are not the oldest or (even worse) the youngest person at a literary event, but in fact sit on the graph somewhere about the median age.
Sean O'Brien began with his story 'Sylvie: A Romance', and I can honestly say that, thanks to its blend of youthful passion, poetic ambition and French Lit Crit, I was whisked back to my English Studies course at Sunderland Polytechnic, but that's hardy the author's fault. No, the tale was a good one, with a seasoning of wit, much local colour and even (somewhat to my surprise) a climactic knock-down confrontation with primal forces in the Lit and Phil library that would have done credit to Algernon Blackwood on one of his feistier days. The use of the framing narrative and clever twist on the theme of the demon lover were particularly effective.
Gail-Nina Anderson followed with an intriguing exploration of one of the great North Eastern folk tales, that of the Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle. Couched in the form of a lecture to an adult education class, the story told me a lot I didn't know about a story that's always been hovering in my peripheral vision, so to speak. Much as people in London are supposed never to go and see the Crown Jewels or Madame Tussaud's, so I have never really bothered much with local legends, but perhaps I should. Certainly there is more to the Cauld Lad (he's nekkid, apparently) than I had assumed.
Chaz Brenchley rounded off the evening with 'True North', featuring the ghost of a child bearing more than a little resemblance to the spooks in Asian horror movies, such as Dark Water. In some respects the most traditional tale, the story shunned easy resolution or moralising. Is the perhaps-unreliable narrator indirectly responsible for the child's death? If not, why should she haunt him? Some otherwise excellent stories are killed by a trite explanation that supposedly 'wraps things up', and fortunately this was not one of them.
All in all, the eighth Phantoms at the Phil event was an enjoyable evening of traditional entertainment. There were no shudders of horror, but many a thrill of appreciation and a fair few outright guffaws (in the right places). What more can a fan of supernatural fiction ask for? Apart from a free drink and a piece of shortcake, of course, and these too I was plied with. What more could a wanderer on such a wild night hope for? Oh, a lift home. Thanks Mike.