Portsmouth’s annual festival of the macabre, DarkFest, has just kicked off and it features a number of S&C regulars including Christine Lawrence, Matt Wingett, William Sutton, Tom Sykes and Richard Peirce. Georgina Monk looks forward to an exhilarating programme of readings, exhibitions, lectures, concerts, workshops, film showings and panel discussions that go on until 11th November.
Exploring the spookier aspects of Portsmouth and other places, DarkFest is a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and other creative outfits based in the city. One of its organisers, Dr Karl Bell, is also the leader of Supernatural Cities, a network of scholars and creative writers affiliated with the university. Their research focuses on the relationship between the urban environment and supernatural beliefs and concepts.
In collaboration with the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub, the Supernatural Cities team held their first event in 2016, Dark City, which brought together local writers to develop a collection of short horror stories which later became a book by the same name. Dr Bell says, ‘I was keen to see if supernatural storytelling art still existed – or could be recreated – in the twenty-first century’. In tandem with other events such as The Day of the Dead spoken word and music evening, Dark City evolved into the massive, month-long DarkFest, which is always held at the scariest time of the year.
According to Dr Bell, DarkFest seeks to remind us of storytelling’s darker roots and make us think about the enduring ability of weird and spectral stories to disturb and unsettle us. Far from our culture having abandoned the cheap thrills of Victorian penny dreadfuls, many of today’s bestselling books and blockbuster films slot quite neatly into the supernatural horror and thriller genres.
‘We still have a yearning for the unknown,’ says Dr Bell, ‘and the supernatural still speaks to that need, and to age-old uncertainties about the limits of our knowledge’. Like the best horror stories, ‘tales of haunted buildings change how we perceive those places. They alter our mundane environment, injecting it with elements of mystery, enchantment and fear.’ The supernatural has enjoyed such longevity because human beings are still grappling with the same doubts, anxieties and uncertainties that our ancestors – recent and ancient – were. ‘Ghost stories can serve as reminders of events or memories that may have been erased from the neat and tidy version of a city’s history,’ says Dr Bell.
These untold or unusual histories will be examined in over thirty events across Portsmouth and Southsea. Last year’s performance of Cure or Be Cured, a promenade performance at Southsea Castle, sought to relate the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to our contemporary time and place. This year’s promenade performance is Cauldron of Darkness, an evening of dark tales and short plays taking place on 1st November.
Many of the events, particularly the talks and panels, are being held within the university itself, making them easily accessible to students whose units may be exploring similar subjects. Highlights include the panel discussions Crime Writing: Truth, Myth, Death and Mayhem on 24th October and The Place of the Outsider on 24th October, and a lecture by historian Matt Wingett on Women, Sex and Spiritualism on 25th October. The full schedule can be viewed here.
‘What Darkfest does best is wildly creative events,’ says novelist and creative writing lecturer William Sutton. ‘For writers, this is especially important.’ If you’re a would-be horror author, for example, DrakFest offers a wealth of resources to help you pen the great Hallowe’en horror yarn. For an evening which could be likened to Mary Shelley’s infamous night of inspiration which led her to write Frankenstein, join Sutton, Christine Lawrence and other local scribes at the Day of the Dead at the Square Tower on 4th November. ‘Nobody will forget Matt Wingett’s bandage-wrapped Egyptian mummy, resurrected by a drunken student on Guildhall walk,’ says Sutton, ‘or Charlotte Comley’s dieting for the undead.’ Day of the Dead has now been running for five years and began before DarkFest was created and formalised.
If you like to be spellbound by spoken word, magic your way over to – and even take part in – the Spoken Wyrd open mic night on 27th October. It’s run by T’Articulation, a troupe of over fifty UoP undergraduates, lecturers and postgraduate researchers, as well as creatives based outside of the academe. Another open mic session not for the faint of heart is Dark Songs III on 11th November, a night filled with pop, poetry and ‘monster folk’.
For something more interactive get along to Typewriter Tales on 24th October at Southsea Coffee, a free drop-in creative writing workshop where you can make a postcard sized piece of art, whether that be a poem, story or drawing.
As you can see, at Darkfest there’s something for everyone’s dark side!
Image courtesy of Portsmouth DarkFest.