Interview: Dr Gail-Nina Anderson | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Why does spooky stuff always have to take place in winter? Surely supernatural occurrences are an all year round thing. Why does the Summer have to be all salubrious and nice? what about us with darker tastes and gothic hearts? Well you’ll be pleased to know that Newcastle’s secret library, the Lit & Phil launches its ghoulish festival of Summer Hauntings between 21 June – 5 July with many events taking place in the fittingly spectacular Hogwarts-esque main library space. It launches on Midsummers Eve (21st June) with Midsummer Phantoms at the Phil, featuring readings of three new supernatural stories from Sean O’Brien, Gail-Nina Anderson and Jacob Polley. Newcastle based cultural historian, lecturer and journalist Dr Gail-Nina Anderson will be exploring the extraordinary origins of Polidori’s The Vampyre, so we had a chilling chat to find out more about the event, the festival and what it is about the supernatural that we love so much.

Tell us more about the Midsummer Phantoms event.
For over a decade now award-winning poet Sean O’Brien has joined with me, plus an invited guest author, to deliver a twice-yearly evening of strange stories in the wonderfully atmospheric atmosphere of the Lit & Phil.  Over the years our tales have covered an alarmingly wide range of spooky themes and weird motifs, sometimes using the Lit & Phil itself as their setting. Ask three reasonable sane writers to let their imaginations run free and you’d be amazed at the places they go to.  We can conjure traditional ghosts and hauntings, but our tales explore the dark places of the mind, the spirits of the past and in one memorable instance, the mysterious qualities of old cardboard boxes.
The “Phantoms” evenings take place around Twelfth Night & Midsummer, but this year the Library has expanded the event into a mini-season of strange tales from different authors read (& in one case sung) by a wide range of voices, plus some genuine ghost-hunting & talks on the literary traditions of spooks & vampires.  There should be levels of ghostiness to suit all listeners, from the slightly nervous to the downright ghoulish.
You have a specialism in the visual traditions of the Gothic. What does that mean?
How do you know a ghost when you see one & what does a vampire look like?  Why do some places send a shiver down your spine & some effects of lighting make you feel uneasy?  As an art historian I explore how these ideas are expressed visually, & it isn’t all just mouldering skulls & misty moors (though those do help).  Because the folklore of ghosts has been viewed as popular superstition, it doesn’t often find its way into mainstream fine art, but look at illustrated books & manuscripts, at ancient carvings or any well-stocked cemetery & you’ll find yourself wandering off from the everyday into a much edgier world where our stranger beliefs & fears can find expression – & that’s before we even get to the magic of the movies, a medium (no pun intended) absolutely made for exploring the shadowy realm.
In your opinion, why do we love a good ghost story?
We really do have a need to test our nerves, frightening ourselves in a safe environment so we know we could handle the real thing (if we ever happened to meet it).  To read or listen to a ghost story feels rather daring, as we encourage ourselves to step into a darker, less predictable realm. A good ghost story makes us feel we’ve been somewhere strange yet somehow recognisable, as it calls up echoes from our own imaginations.
What are your highlights of the Summer Hauntings season at The Lit & Phil?
Well I get to talk to Ann Cleeves, which is always a pleasure – & on this occasion to ask her questions well outside the rational world of her detective fiction.  Poppy Holden’s recital of traditional ghostly ballads, The Unquiet Grave, is a joy, with her beautiful unaccompanied voice calling up spirits of its own. I’m also looking forward to getting to grips with Shakespeare’s Ghosts & Polidori’s Vampyre in my own talks.  Both subjects offer wild imagery & layer upon layer of interpretation to explore.
Your event is on Summer Solstice Friday 21 June (Midsummer’s Eve) – a traditionally active time for the spirit world. Are you concerned that some supernatural activity might disrupt proceedings?
The Midsummer Solstice is certainly a remarkably potent time when mysteries are very thinly veiled & the atmosphere is charged with possibility – but so far we’ve managed to avoid any unwelcome presences.  I’m planning, however, to join one of the late evening events that will take us into the Lit & Phil well into the witching time of night. If any of the Library’s several resident ghosts would care to make themselves known, they will find themselves in appreciative (if terrified) company.

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