Commentary April 24, 2018

Breaking the silence

SEAN O’BRIEN

Like many ideas, good and bad, this one arose in the pub. I was in the Bodega near the old Stoll Opera House in Newcastle one teatime about fifteen years ago with my friend the fantasy and crime novelist Chaz Brenchley, when we found ourselves agreeing that it would be a good thing to organize an evening of supernatural tales. We would invite another friend, Gail-Nina Anderson, expert in all matters vampiric and Goth, to join us. The stories would be written specially for the occasion. The obvious place to hold the event – the only place – would be the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, known as the Lit and Phil.

“Phantoms at the Phil”, as Chaz christened it, has taken place ever since. Readings are held at Christmas and midsummer. There are large audiences, including diehards there from the start, plus a stream of newcomers, and perhaps, if appearances are anything to go by, some representatives of the undead, present in an observing capacity. People clearly like being read to with a glass of wine in hand. We invite guests to contribute – including David Almond, Anne Cleeves and Val McDermid. Val had never attempted a ghost story before; she still managed to work in plenty of murder.

The Lit and Phil is a gift to the storyteller. The biggest subscription library outside London, older than the London Library, it is in many ways the star of the show. For good or ill, it prompted my interest in writing supernatural stories. The encrusted literariness of the place reminds me of the opening of M. R. James’s story “The Tractate Middoth”, which takes place at the British Museum. “Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library . . . .” I remember a terrifying photograph of a cloaked and ancient cleric with a wide-brimmed hat and, it seemed, no eyes, from the cover of an anthology of stories from the 1960s television series Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

The turning of disquiet into terror seems to be the keynote of my own stories. They tend to take place between the late nineteenth century and the early 1950s, a past where the Lit and Phil, for all its efficient modernity, seems to have located itself in my imagination. My central characters are often literary types, either in decline or in the wrong place (rainy Venice, deserted Bruges-la-Morte, an eerie Greek island) at the wrong time. In “Quartier Perdu”, for example, which I wrote in 2014, a young American scholar, visiting Bruges to work on the papers of a long­deceased Satanist poet, finds herself imprisoned in his house. A fair amount of pastiche and admiring parody is unavoidable, I’ve found, as is a certain glee about the delivery of comeuppances. There is background radiation emanating from the James Gang, Henry and M. R., but, lacking their subtlety and restraint, I include a good deal of actual or implied violence. Books and bookish subjects figure prominently. In “A Green Shade”, a philistine university manager incurs the wrath of Apollo. “Close to You” gave me the opportunity to introduce the Lit and Phil: a Gothic scholar, after giving a public lecture there, is pursued by an entity angered by her assumption that such creatures are imaginary. When I was commissioned to write a Christmas story a few years ago – “not too dark, please, Sean” – it was a struggle to keep the fiends off the page.

Why write this stuff? To entertain myself and the audience at the Lit and Phil, and perhaps to explore terrain that is somehow immune to the disenchantment of the daylight world. In many of the stories, the imaginary turns out to be real. So there’s escapism, but to where? Often to the library itself and the three-dimensional insides of books.

Founded in 1793, and occupying its current neo-classical premises on Westgate Road since the 1820s, the Lit and Phil began as a conversation club, with religion and politics excluded. Despite this, the library has a copy of Jean-Paul Marat’s The Chains of Slavery (1774), written during the revolutionary’s five-year residence in Newcastle. The library seems to have been the cultural and scientific centre of life in the city, a place where science and the humanities met. It was here in 1880 that Joseph Swan gave the first public demonstration of electric lighting, at a meeting chaired by Sir William Armstrong, the arms and engineering magnate. So in one sense the place is a temple of reason. But science and rationality must compete with other forces. Go downstairs from the vast L-shaped reading room, containing 100,000 volumes, with its gallery and Shelleyan glass domes, and you find the Silence Room. There are small desks set between the stacks, and the shelving on the walls is full of county records. The newcomer hesitates to enter, and then to stay, because the occupants can be possessive, even forbidding. It is dark: the air is Marmite-coloured even at noon. Although the Silence Room has windows, it receives little natural light because the adjacent Bolbec Hall is so close. I’ve always felt that the room is patiently biding its time, and that if you’re there long enough you will be shown something not necessarily to your advantage.

The Silence Room gave me a title for a story (and later for a collection). In the story, set shortly before the First World War, two poets quarrel about what we’ve come to know as modernism. One disappears. It is in the Silence Room that the other poet discovers, to his horror, what became of his erstwhile friend. Anyone who publishes or reads their work in public becomes used to episodes of disfavour from audiences. So I had already braced myself on the evening one Christmas when I’d read “The Silence Room” and a sombre-faced bloke approached. “Do you mind if I make a comment?” he asked. I did a bit more bracing, then nodded. He smiled and said, “I was fucking shitting meself” – the greatest literary compliment I have ever received, but unfortunately not one that could be reproduced on the back of a book.

The Lit and Phil has a kind of twin, a not-quite doppelgänger. This is the Mining Institute next door, which houses its own library in the magnificent High Gothic Neville Hall, as well as a splendid lecture theatre. The Institute has been the home of various other organizations, including at one time the Masons. The two buildings are connected: access is gained via an interior bridge. You descend from the ground floor by a narrow enclosed staircase to reach the lecture theatre, where you find yourself facing a further steep set of steps down to a table with three baronial-looking high-backed chairs. From here you can see the splendour of the varnished, brass-railed semi-circle of mahogany benches, covered in large, sinister-looking cushions in scarlet leather. On every available space on the walls are photographs of the officials of the Mining Institute, dating back into the vastly bearded nineteenth century and dying out when the coal industry moved from decline towards extinction in the late twentieth.

If anything can be called rational, it is surely mining engineering. But whenever I’ve taken part in a Phantoms reading there, a quite different image has presented itself – Jack Palance, playing Jekyll and Hyde in a BBC television film from 1968, running up a near-vertical medical lecture theatre when overtaken by transformation. Back in the Lit and Phil, it took me some time to realize that the bust which sits on top of the radiator/sacrificial altar, facing the performer at Phantoms, is in fact Robert Louis Stevenson. I have tried to discover what brings him here, without success, but it’s apt that the great ­storyteller presides over our attempts, though his mild gaze seems to look inward rather than at us. It is certainly a setting that would have appealed to him: one can imagine the library transported and set down in Auld Reekie, perfectly suited to the place.

Although midsummer is some way off, I’m already aware of that slight sense of unease that comes before I manage to identify the entrance to the next story. Gail is much more relaxed, apparently coming up with something the day before the event. Our guests never let us down. At the moment, I’m waiting. There is a tale to be written about spending the night alone in the vast building. Ghost hunters have visited, but they’re sensible enough to come in groups, and I’m informed that they sit round the big table by the coffee hatch and join hands. A night of solitude might be wholly unremarkable, but you never quite know. Miss Norwell, who was the librarian when I first joined, told me that there was said to be a presence in the book storeroom. For some reason, I’ve never been down there to find out. The phantom is thought to be a librarian, and to signal its presence by the sound of pages being turned. The ghost is also said to be wholly benevolent. But how would anyone know for certain?