‘Rural Eerie’ was an evening of sonic immersion and spoken word, plunging the audience gathered in a Manchester Northern Quarter basement into the dark depths of the strange countryside. Taking place on the 19 October at The Peer Hat, this was an utterly unique Gothic Manchester Festival 2019 event. Whilst a soundscape and a series of visuals were created by Hauntronica trio Flange Circus, the theme was further explored through readings from a series of writers: Mark Pajak, Sarah Hymas, Helen Darby, Andrew Michael Hurley, Emily Oldfield and Richard Skelton.  It was presented by Flange Circus, MASSmcr and Haunt Manchester.

Rural Eerie

Flange Circus started proceedings, the first to be present on the stage – stirring sound into a kind of presence, ebbing and flowing, whilst a series of visuals were brought into being through the stage-wide projections behind them. This was imagery encompassing terrain of many types, in turn taking the audience on an audio-visual rural eerie journey; woodland, rough rock, open moors, the shimmer of seascape. It told of travel, of risk, weighted with both danger and delight – passing from scene to scene with a fluidity that was both alluring and yet unnerving. This was a powerful array of combined footage, atmospherically lit, immersing the room rather than imposing upon it; creating a feel that was distinctly collective. The stage and surrounds were draped in ivy, the atmosphere heavy in suspense, in wonder.

As the event unfolded, the uncanny countryside seemed to seep into the room – perhaps a reminder that even within an urban space, the overwhelming influence of nature is never too far away. It emerges both in its own right and from how people have exploited it, a kind of human-inflicted haunting – the country idyll, injured. We are confronted with the eeriness of what was… as well as what continues.

 After all, The Rural Eerie is a theme of rawness, right now more than ever; especially as reports of the impact of human consumption on the natural world continue to increase.  Climate Change is a subject increasingly discussed, courses of activism argued over. This evening, subtitled as ‘The Strange Countryside Explored through Sounds and Words’ was an occasion of exploration and connection, bringing audience and performers together in a resonant reflection. Nature’s power was celebrated within the space. The mood was distinctly positive, buoyed with a hope for progress, despite the dark and essential themes.

Rural Eerie

This was reflected in Flange Circus’ carefully crafted sound, co-ordinated to each individual reader yet still stirring with untamed aspects of the rural –  layers of field recordings, gathered from all over the country. Whilst Mark Pajak’s poetry explored areas such as agricultural terror and the mechanisation that moves at the edge of the rural, Sarah Hymas’ (pictured below) repetition of ‘melt’ from within her work, gripping in its glacial magnitude, was amplified to eerie intensity by the echoing chime of dripping water. She reflected:

“I loved being a part of this... hearing connections and spaces made between writers, amplified by the electro groove of the music, so listening truly became feeling.”

Sarah Hymas

 Then the dramatic presence of Helen Darby, robed in white and with a bundle of wheat, unfurling words weighted with ritualistic splendour, seared into the room. Bringing together skilful spoken word with sung vocals, this was a combination with real creative impression. Texture and tone were evoked through evocative, intimate imagery - a tactile quality shining through. She then proceeded to share the wheat with the audience, adding to the immersion of the evening.

According to Helen (pictured below):

“Participating in the Rural Eerie event was an incredible breakthrough for me personally, as a performer, as I was able to experiment with rhyme, sung vocals and audience participation (via a ritualistic element). These are all new facets to my work that emerged for me as part of the creative process of engaging with this specific theme. Something about the earthiness of the rural and the ethereality of the eerie allowed a space to do work that was both grounded in tradition and experimental in form.

Helen Darby

"The knowledge that I would be performing over a soundscape (also a first for me) gave me more freedom to allow for movement and performance, as I knew I would not have to occupy all of the attention with my words. All of these aspects meant that this was the greatest freedom I have felt in my (so far) short performance career – and has been deeply inspiring in opening up new vistas of possibility as to where I might travel next.”

The diversity of the evening was also reflected in the range of mediums presented on stage – a real palimpsest of poetry, prose and performance. Andrew Michael Hurley (pictured below) read an excerpt from his latest novel Starve Acre (published by John Murray. Read the full Haunt interview on his new book here), infusing the image of a hare with an exploration of the landscape of grief. The audience was transfixed on his detailing of the sheer power of the animal – the process of its enclosure and then release.

Andrew Michael Hurley

Andrew considered:

"I didn't know quite what to expect from the Rural Eerie event but I knew that it would be something wonderfully unique. And it was. The blend of strange, unsettling words, music and images brilliantly captured the complexity of folk horror."

A short interval then followed, allowing the assembled crowd to contemplate the areas of exploration.

The rural is capable of rupturing human order and understanding – it holds forces we cannot contain, thrives with life we fail to see. It has power and potential beyond us. In turn, these unnerving qualities are also uplifting – an aspect of encounter within co-organiser Emily Oldfield’s (pictured below) poetry.

Emily Oldfield

Her performance was followed by the final reader of the night, Richard Skelton (pictured below) – the writer and multi-instrumentalist co-founder of Corbel Stone Press, whose novella The Look Away  was longlisted for The Portico Prize 2019. 

Richard read a series of excerpts on the night, drawing on secretive life of the natural world beyond our grasp, the intensity and intricacies of other-than-human consciousness. The audience were hooked on the weight of each word, a sort of suspense stunning the room – with a number in the crowd sitting on the floor by this point. Imagery of dark streams, the sonic stir of land and its elements rising and falling… hit hard. Skelton’s craft in encountering nature, its raw power and path of inheritance, provided a cadence, coming together with sound to stunning effect – allowing for individual introspection, whilst simultaneously mind-opening.

Richard Skelton

The specially-created soundscape from Flange Circus certainly underpinned the evening. One member, Julian Holloway – co-organiser of The Rural Eerie - reflected:

 “For this event, we had to almost completely write from scratch. We’d written a lot of new music for our next album, but it did not quite fit the idea of the strange and eerie countryside. This was with the exception of a track called ‘Mouldy Heels’ which fitted the (dare I say it) concept (with its ominous yet plaintive piano riff and motifs). So we deconstructed the track and made two variations of it – one for the opening and one for the closing piece to bookend the night.

“The other soundscapes were written through multiple sessions where we all contributed something. This is quite new for us, as usually it’s one person who brings an almost complete track to the band and we then all add something to it. With Rural Eerie, we wrote together and we enjoyed this new way of working so much I think it’s how we’re going to do it going forward.

“Most of what people heard on the night was composed through field recordings we had recorded ourselves during many walks in the countryside. There was the sound of a community plastic duck race, kids playing and shouting in The Cage – the folly at Lyme Park, the sound of a field being harvested in the Peak District, a creaky gate in Eyam, multiple birds, rivers, brooks and streams, rocks being scraped across each other, owl calls recorded outside our studio, the sound of someone digging, and loads more. We took each of these, and in many cases, mangled them until they were only vaguely recognisable – and deliberately so in order to achieve that sense of something being there when it shouldn’t be or something half-recognisable. We tried therefore to make them eerie as possible.

Rural Eerie

“As well as soundscapes we spent a lot of time taking film footage with the idea of the strange rural in mind. The visuals used on the night were mostly composed of our own films from a whole series of places, mainly around Derbyshire, but also Hampshire and Suffolk. The latter delivered some excellent MR James-esque costal eerie. Then Pete spent hours and hours putting them together and relying on his self-confessed fear of the rural to make them fit the idea…

“Each poet and writer had a soundscape to perform to. These were created through the poet or writer sending us a series of keywords that summed up the work they were to present on the night. We then recorded these soundscapes or made other noise to complement their work. Only two of the performers asked to hear their soundscape before the event, with others happy for us to surprise them and translate their ideas into sonic form. There’s always a chance this might not work, but given the reaction we’ve had, the audience seemed to think it did. We were so pleased that something that took so long to prepare for – so many hours – turned out so well.”

The readers also reflected on their experience. Mark Pajak (pictured below) – whose pamphlet ‘Spitting Distance’ (published with Smith|Doorstop) was one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice Pamphlets - added:

Mark Pajak

"The Rural Eerie was a completely new experience for me. Reading alongside music and with no introductions to each poem, challenged me to perform my work in an unfamiliar way and, by so doing, allowed me to see my poems in a fresh light. Taking part in the event has enriched my understanding of how broad and multifaceted the reading of poetry can be."

For those further interested in exploring The Rural Eerie, further projects are in the planning. Watch this space.

Rural Eerie

Photography with thanks to Elaina Daley and Alannis Barnes, except image 6 - thanks to Ian Drew. Event also with thanks to the dedicated work of Lucy Simpson and RAH! - Research in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met