In Haunt

Reliquiae – ‘fossil remains of animals or plants’. This realm of natural discovery and creative cartography is frequently of the focus of multi-instrumental artist Richard Skelton – who also operates a journal of the same name with Autumn Richardson, part of their joint publishing project Corbel Stone Press.

Richard Skelton

Richard is an artist who rather than just reflecting the themes of the natural world, evocatively engages with its frequencies; creating artwork that explores as well as is underpinned by the importance of nature having its own expression – a point perhaps beyond human definition. From being inspired by the gripping tensions of glacier ice to the closer contours of open moorland, Richard has created an array of poetry, prose and soundscapes notably rooted in landscape. An example is the West Pennine Moors of his earlier years, including the isolated parish of Anglezarke, part of the Lancashire borough of Chorley; a location interlaced with Bronze Age artefacts and dramatic gritstone. Much of Richard’s previous work was released on his earlier Sustain-Release Label, a sensitivity to place brought together with self-taught instrumentation and handcrafted design.

This is artistry that engages with place and its experiences; steeped in the sonic waves of its complexities, hauntological layers locked in human-tainted terrain. In an age where the impact of the Anthropocene is increasingly discussed, Richard’s work has an urgency without ever feeling overt – instead a moving minimalism and love of language are often part of the approach. This is something he will continue to explore in his upcoming involvement in Rural Eerie: The Strange Countryside Explored through Sounds and Words - an immersive evening of readings and a soundscape created by Manchester’s own hauntronica trio Flange Circus on the 19th October at The Peer Hat in Manchester (part of the Gothic Manchester Festival 2019, an event presented by Flange Circus, MASSmcr and Haunt). Here he will be reading some of his work, with other writers involved including Andrew Michael Hurley, Helen Darby, Sarah Hymas and Mark Pajak. Tickets can be booked via the link here, over the phone (please contact Lucy Simpson on 0161 247 6740) and tickets will also be available on the door.

It certainly seems a busy year for Richard, recently featured on the likes of BBC Radio 6 Music, including Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, highlighting his own sonic output which this year includes Border Ballads – a kind of artistic encounter with the Scottish-English borderland, an area where he currently lives. Pulling on a panorama through the likes of piano, viola, cello and ambient electronics, Richard’s intimate approach expresses the want of a creative consciousness to co-exist and communicate with, rather than on behalf of, nature. This is also evident in his range of writings, including 2009’s critically acclaimed Landings and 2018’s novella The Look Away; shortlisted for the Portico Prize 2019. Richard is also completing a PhD with a Place Writing focus at the Manchester Writing School (Manchester Metropolitan University).

By Richard SkeltonYet rather than just focusing on his own experiences, Richard is passionate about the depth and diversity of voices creatively engaging with the natural world. With Autumn Richardson he seeks to operate Corbel Stone Press as a publisher of pieces interested in ‘Ecology, anthropology, folklore, animism and other than human consciousness’. As well as creating beautiful editions of work with a fine attention to detail and presentation, it also has another imprint – Xylem Books – allowing for affordable, globally distributed paper forms. As aforementioned, Reliquiae is the title of their bi-annual journal.

Ahead of Rural Eerie – Haunt Manchester decided to speak to Richard to find out more…

Hello Richard. Thank you for your involvement in Rural Eerie. What instinctively came to mind when you were presented with this concept?

"I immediately thought of a passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ diaries about his journey on foot across a Lancashire landscape in unusual atmospheric conditions. He describes the Bowland Fells as having a ‘pale goldish skin without body’, and the passage concludes with the observation that ‘nature in all her parcels and faculties gaped and fell apart’. For me, the eerie involves a sense of rupture, of ‘ordinary’ reality breaking open to reveal something else. When I first read them, I was strongly moved by Hopkins’ words, and was motivated to discover other writers whose work conjured a similar sensation. Among them were: Dorothy Wordsworth, W.H. Hudson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas de Quincey and Mrs Gaskell. A piece by Hudson in particular I found extremely evocative – he describes an encounter with a ruined house in the middle of a forest, and how it had a ‘strange look in [the] memory’. For me, this is the other component of the eerie – a sense of sentience that is beyond human; that the things you look at also look back. And so Hudson relates how the house seemed to speak to him, saying: ‘We have waited these many years for you to come and listen to our story and you are come at last’. Having had an almost identical experience with the ruins of farmhouses on the West Pennine Moors, I found this passage exhilarating. I collected this and others into a book which I published in 2014, entitled ‘Nimrod is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre’. My aim was to distill these disparate fragments into a loose but somehow coherent sequence."

By Richard Skelton

In terms ‘the eerie’ and its relationship with the rural – how do you see this? Is this a human expression of what we fear we cannot understand – or do you think the rural has its own innate eeriness?

"The innate eeriness of the countryside must surely be its lack of other-than-human presences. In Britain we have suppressed our wildernesses to the point where the countryside is contained and controlled. Every inch of it is mapped and owned; it is no longer wild. For me, there is an eeriness in its silence. Having spent evenings among the deafening clamour of wild life in the woods of Canada and America, the quietude of British woodland is haunting. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of its return to life, and, depending on your perspective, this is either a promise or a threat. The return of apex predators in particular may promise the return of fear. It could even be argued that this fear has never left us, and that the rural eerie explores this lingering afterimage. In some of my work I have written about the violent return of the animals that we have extirpated; about the need for a human blood-letting."

How can exploring this relationship be beneficial, do you think – and is there a particular artistic approach that lends itself best to this, in your experience?

"From my perspective, as a British artist, I think it is important to acknowledge these absences. Much of my work with Autumn Richardson has been focused on giving attention to what has vanished. It has had an elegiac quality. Nevertheless, with musical recordings like ‘Diagrams for the Summoning of Wolves’, and poems such as ‘The Medicine Earth’, we have tried to cultivate a kind of optimism. This is important, we think. Art has a great capacity for positive action; we can’t wallow in despair and apathy. There has to be hope that progress can still be made."

Can you tell us about how some of your own experiences of the rural and nature have influenced your current creative work and the choice of mediums you use?

"A couple of years ago Autumn and I moved to the Scottish Borders, close to the riverine border with the English counties of Cumbria and Northumberland. Over the course of about eighteen months I recorded an album of music which very much feels distilled from our time in this new environment. And so I called it Border Ballads. The process of making music, after a decade and a half, is still mysterious to me, and so I couldn’t tell you exactly how that distillation process works. In many ways it is unconscious – it comes from simply being in a place, day after day, week after week. As the Kielder Observatory is nearby, perhaps a good analogy is stargazing. From my own experience, if I look directly at the Pleiades, for example, they seem to squirm and their brightness dissipates. But in the periphery of my vision they appear quite vivid. And so in a similar fashion the landscape of the Borders has slowly infused my work without me ever looking at it intently. It’s as if I have somehow absorbed its textures and colours."

By Richard Skelton

To expand on the previous point, can you perhaps tell us about Corbel Stone Press and any upcoming projects?

"We’re very excited to be reissuing two vital books of ecological and esoteric writing by the Canadian poet and philosopher Tim Lilburn; Moosewood Sandhills and Living In The World As If It Were Home. We’re also just about to publish a bumper issue of our bi-annual journal Reliquiae, which has some incredible new writing by poets and essayists, including Jeffery Beam, Nancy Campbell, Tim Cresswell, Penelope Shuttle, Gabriel Ventura, and G.C. Waldrep, as well as folklore and mythology from Greece, India, North America and Egypt. In terms of personal work, Autumn has a new collection of poetry forthcoming with occult publisher Scarlet Imprint, and I’m working on my second book of fiction."

Why engage with the ‘Rural Eerie’?

"As far as I see it, engaging with the eerie is fundamentally an acknowledgement of life beyond our own species. It’s about probing that complex and troubling relationship between humans and others. In my own work, at least, it’s about exploring mystery, wonder and awe, rather than simply promulgating fear of the unknown."

By Emily Oldfield

Photography: Image 1/featured image - with thanks to Autumn Richardson. Rest of images - Richard's own.

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