In Haunt

By Dr Becky Alexis-Martin (Lecturer in Human Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University - and see more of her work at

As a child, I moved from the comforting urban sounds and sights of my Birmingham estate to a tiny village in the country. I recall softly shuffling my scuffed Hush Puppies through russet leaves after school, waiting anxiously in quiet dread of the impending sunset and strangeness of the anti-bucolic night. I was consumed by nightmares of silence, dark earth, wild animals and black skies. I yearned for traffic and pavements, for a robust red bus to materialise and take me home.  I remember the abattoir on our road. The acrid scent of manure, the giddiness of falling from a stile into a nettle patch, my legs already scored by callous brambles. I am now a grateful city-dweller. Frankly, the countryside is uncanny.

The Rural Eerie (presented by Flange Circus, MASSmcr and Haunt Manchester, as part of the Gothic Manchester Festival 2019) on 19 October provided a sharply elegant evocation of the rural sublime, through soundscapes and spoken word. I clutched the banister to descend into The Peer Hat’s subterranean venue, while the glitched tones of wild birds and waves created an unnerving soundscape. I thought I heard an owl. It was not an owl.

Flange Circus

It was Flange Circus (pictured above), a local experimental electronica group. The set was generously strewn with ivy, with feral shoots festooning both amps and synths alike. Dreamlike depictions of hedgerows and coasts flickered, while a delicately scuffed grass stage completed the set-up. I waited for this rural conjuration begin, in the midst of the deepest, darkest depths of the Northern Quarter.

Mark Pajak (pictured below) walks onto the stage, and begins to talk. Among other things, his poems spoke of the banal violence of battery chicken farms. His words flow gently, but hit like sledgehammers to crumble the whimsy of the rural idyll. His poetry is sinister and countrified, couched in terms of bags of small, feathered bodies, and jostling the more-than-human.

Mark Pajak

Sarah Hymas was also extraordinary. Her beautiful voice unveiled coastal decay and isostatic rebound, at a glacial pace. From iceberg to ocean, her words scintillated in the darkness of the room, with each perfect syllable forming a shard of glistening warning. Beware, the Anthropocene is nigh.

Helen Darby (pictured below) was a highlight of the evening. Shrouded in a white silk dress, her performance provided a vivid narrative of the corn doll, a lively anthropomorphism of the cycle of life and death.

Helen Darby

There were also exceptional performances from Andrew Michael Hurley and Emily Oldfield. Andrew read from his latest novel Starve Acre, an extract evoking the presence and power of a wild hare, its uncanniness in the face of captivity. Emily’s poetry somehow taps into what it means to be human, through her narratives of place and event. I was deeply moved by her words.

Richard Skelton (pictured below) was the final reader of the night, his words weighted with wild encounter – the resonant realisation of human insignificance in the face of nature’s presence. Its magnitude menacing… yet magnificent. This was a reading that was both striking yet never over-done, his tone controlled, capturing the cadence of crossing terrain – taking us into alternate channels of thought. It was a deeply reflective experience: plunging all present into the imagery of dark streams, open moorland, a sense of isolation. And yet, as a room, we were all united in our contemplation – to powerful effect. 

Rural Eerie

Afterwards, we emerged out into the chaos of an average Mancunian Saturday night. Our skin was drenched in neon light, and we inhaled the tang of air pollution as we made our way home.

Image credit: all photos with thanks to Elaina Daley and Alannis Barnes, except image 2 - thanks to Ian Drew.

A Rural Eerie Retrospective - featuring quotes from some of the performers, can be read here.

Event also thanks to the hard work of Lucy Simpson and RAH! - Research in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met





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