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.


Edwin Moore said...

Hi Valdemar (Dave) - Edwin here. The Borders have some really horrible spooky things - here are some:

Wulvers and Hugboys
..and Trows, Redcaps, Dunters and Powries. Apart from fairies under the hill and water horses and kelpies in the water, there are some really awful things lurking in the Scottish woods, fields and hills. The Hugboy (see Maeshowe, Scotland: Land and People) is a scary spirit native to Orkney which lives in old burial mounds - they sometimes share their neighbourhoods with Trows, ie trolls which live in mounds called ‘Trowie Knowes’. Trows are nasty, brutish and short, and are also found on Shetland. A trow called ‘Nikademius’ lives on ‘Da Sneck o da Smallie’ on the Shetland isle of Foula: don’t visit him at night. The Wulver is a Shetland werewolf variant. They don’t seem to shift form: the permanent form is a man’s body and a wolf’s head. Wulvers spend a lot of time fishing and have occasionally been described as benevolent, leaving fish for poor families.
Redcaps are Border beings, also called Dunters and Powries, which may be localised variants of redcaps. They are all horrible and can outrun you. They have sharp claws and get their name because they want to dip their hats in your blood. f you meet one your only hope is to chant bits of the Bible at it, and tis teeth will fall out. Dunters are particularly associated with castles, and may be guardian spirits (read MR James), or possibly the souls of humans sacrificed at the foundation. Sir Michael Soulis (see above) was accompanied by a redcap called Robin.



valdemar said...

Blimey, that's a lot. I suppose what it proves is that, in ye olden days, people were rooted in a particular area (well, 'the common people' anyway) and invented a whole supernatural world that was intensely local. But these local spooks tended to fade (or bleed) into one another.

Thanks for the list. When I was a lad we used to holiday in Scotland every year. The only eerie experience I had was simply standing by Loch Ness. A very spooky place.

Edwin Moore said...

Actually i think there is little to touch the Geordie Cauld lad!

The border redcaps seem the worst of the lot. The Shetland wulvers seem uniquely benevelent but I'd give them all a wide berth.


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