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On Friday night, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I wended our way to Batley Library for The Book of Darkness and Light, a two-player ghost story show. I wasn't 100% sure what to expect in advance, other than promises of spookiness, but TBH that was enough for me! As it transpired, the set-up was for Adam Z. Robinson to act as the main presenter and narrator of stories which he had written, while Ben Styles lent them the perfect atmosphere with his violin, and an assistant with a lap-top generated other sound-effects. Adam's role was very much like Robert Lloyd Parry's approach to telling M.R. James' ghost stories, in that he dressed in an Edwardian style, took on the mannerisms and some of the actions of the characters during his performance, used a few simple props (an aged book, a tankard, a candle) and did the entire 90-minute performance verbatim from memory. The differences were that the stories themselves were his own original compositions, he had worked with Ben Styles from the start so that story and music were inherently inter-twined, and occasional 'voice-overs' from off-stage characters (e.g. letters, newspaper reports) gave him short respites during the performance.

The evening began with Adam introducing a framing narrative about how the Book of Darkness and Light (represented by a prop book which looked genuinely like it had come straight off the shelf in an alchemist's study) had somehow come into their possession, and that they would share three stories from it with us. When the first of those stories began with Adam explaining that it represented a testimony in court taken from the documents of a legal firm called Magnus, Alberic and Barchester, I knew I could snuggle down in my seat, safe in the knowledge of a very pleasurable evening ahead. The story transpired to be set in the present day, as it revolved around an MP whose role in applying very contemporary-sounding pension cuts came back to haunt him in a direct and literal manner. The language was quite Jamesian throughout, though, as were the descriptions of a creeping damp horror becoming more and more present in the MP's bedroom. It also had a nice false shock moment when the MP thought he had seen something horrific over his shoulder in the mirror, but it turned out to be just his dress jacket hanging on the back of the door. My one reservation about this story, though, was that its morality felt too simplistic, to the point of wish-fulfilment. I'm afraid I rolled my eyes in particular when I heard a line about how the MP was eager to get along to a Commons debate about MPs' pay, and thought immediately of those stupid memes with fake pictures about that very issue. Plenty of the victims of James' ghosts are villains who deserve everything they get in a similar way - Dr Haynes in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', who proves to have murdered his way to an Archdeaconry, is a very good example. But the line about the pay in particular just seemed too much like easy low-hanging fruit (as the popularity of those memes proved), while James' ghosts don't tend to literally shout "You did this!" at their victims. That aside, though, a good start to the evening.

The middle story was shorter and simpler, and boiled down to a wicked stepmother tale. Here, the stepmother was a dancer, and the star of the stage, but gradually her young stepdaughter began to eclipse her until, consumed with jealousy, she ordered her to practice her dancing in the stairwell of the theatre, locked both of the doors which led to it, and then set the whole place on fire so that the girl died. The story is told in the journal of an urbex photographer, who has gone there with a friend, drawn by the story of the girl's death - but not entirely expecting to find her there, still dancing on the stairs. This one didn't pretend to be anything other than a simple, straightforward ghost story (terrible thing happens, echoes of it still imprinted at the scene of the crime), but it was nicely told, and the way Adam narrated the girl's death-scene, still dancing and dancing in spite of the fire until she can do so no longer, was particularly effective.

Finally, the third story was the absolute highlight of the evening for me. It centred on a historian in the early 1950s going on a research trip to view a village roundhouse (or lock-up), and discovering not only that some dark horror lurks within, but also that it had been built directly over the site of a hanging-tree used for executing witches. No simple morality this time - the main character's only flaws are being a bit overly-convinced of his own cleverness, fatal Jamesian curiosity, and failing to recognise that he is in a horror story. He takes rooms on one side of the village square, from which he can see the roundhouse in its centre, and night after night he watches an eerie and unsettling child standing before the roundhouse door, facing away from him, and prompting some mutterings about local parenting which reminded me very much of Arthur Machen's story 'The Happy Children' which we saw an adaptation of in Whitby (LJ / DW). Each time he sees the child, it is slightly further back from the roundhouse, and slightly closer to the house where he is staying, but when it disappears one night, does he realise that it is in the house??? Nope - at least, not until he encounters it one night on the stairs, that is! From there, things transpire pretty much as you might imagine - and the rising sense of tension as it got closer and closer to his bedroom door, and finally to the poor man, curled up terrified in the bed itself, was delicious.

The ending for him was not a happy one, but we came away giddy with the thrill of it all, and only sorry that this was the last night on the current tour. The good news is that they are already planning a new show for autumn/ winter 2018 - and [personal profile] miss_s_b, [profile] hollyamory, [personal profile] magister and Andrew Hickey can bet their boots I will be evangelising wildly about it when they do!


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