Creative spirit

THE HAUNTING: Leeds library is the main venue for a programme of events.
THE HAUNTING: Leeds library is the main venue for a programme of events.
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A month-long festival of words, performance and visual art, all inspired by the ghost story is taking over the Leeds Library. Yvette Huddleston reports.

There’s a bit of a chill in the air at Leeds Library this month when it hosts a programme of events and interventions entitled The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade.

The Haunting is presented by Alchemy – a Leeds-based arts organisation which aims to connect people through the arts and open doors to new ideas through shared cultural experience – working in collaboration with the Library, Leeds International Film Festival and Ilkley Literature Festival.

The Library itself, on Commercial Street in the heart of Leeds, was founded in 1768 and is the oldest surviving example of the ‘proprietary subscription library’ in Britain. It is also rumoured to be haunted by a former librarian from the 19th century, so it is the perfect 
venue for the month-long programme.

“The space is very evocative – it lends itself to all kinds of interventions,” says Nima Poovaya-Smith, curator and director of Alchemy. “It is an inspirational source of stories through its diverse collections and in putting the programme together we have worked with the rhythm and ambience of the library.”

Pulling together a variety of different art-forms which complement and repsond to each other, visitors are in for a treat. Internationally acclaimed writers Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, Rommi Smith and John Siddique explore not only the thrills and chills but also the more reflective and provocative aspects of ghosts and hauntings through poetry, performance, short stories.

There are enigmatic installations from artist Zareena Bano and others, plus soundscape, dance, vocals and film with around sixteen new commissions as well as performances, masterclasses, workshops and ghostly trails.

And it’s a wide brief that’s open to all sorts of interesting interpretations. “The project grew out of my own love and passion for ghost stories, particularly the stories of M R James and Edith Wharton, but we are not just looking at haunting in the supernatural sense,” says Poovaya-Smith. “People are haunted in all kinds of ways; haunting can be metaphorical not just literal so we have a great depth with what the artists have done.”

Our fascination with ghost stories is long-standing and complex – on the most profound level they are a reminder of our own mortality – and it is a tradition that crosses cultures and continents.

“I think there are many reasons for our interest in them,” says Poovaya-Smith. “But I think one element is the concept of being ‘safely scared’ – it’s a thrill. And there is such a rich tradition of demonology and dark forces. Then there is our curiosity about the possibility of an afterlife, especially if we have lost somebody.”

A highlight of the programme is artist Steve Manthorp’s exquisitely detailed and mildly discomfiting The Haunted Doll’s House, based on MR James’ classic ghost story of the same name.

“Steve shares my passion for MR James’ work and he told me that he has been wanting to make a Haunted Doll’s House for about thirty years,” says Poovaya-Smith. “It was an idea that haunted him.”

Other highlights include ceramicist Adele Howitt’s installation which responds to Edith Wharton’s psychologically unsettling story Pomegranate Seed and a late night walk through Ilkley with Literature Festival apprentice poet in residence Mark Pajak sharing scary stories and poetry that reveal the macabre folklore and history associated with some of the town’s landmarks.

Across the month there will be numerous workshops and masterclasses including poetry masterclasses by Simon Armitage and Rommi Smith and a spooky Halloween workshop.

“None of the artists have done anything obvious, everyone has produced exquisite work, they have outdone themselves,” says Poovaya-Smith. “In the library itself we have several interventions. We have put objects in bookshelves for people to discover, so around every corner you encounter something interesting.” She adds, smiling: “All these things came together, one might say, in an almost supernatural way.”

The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade runs until November 7. For the full programme details visit