Anyone who has been to shows will be able to recall a handful of formative events in their lives, ones that astounded them and set the standard to which they measure all other experiences. I can safely add the Nightlands Festival to my own list of formative experiences. Nightlands is a festival dedicated to celebrating supernatural horror in literature through live spoken word readings of weird fiction, all set to music composed specifically for the stories and performed live.
The Nightlands Festival took place on June 2nd and 3rd, 2023 at the Kathedral Event Center in Hammonton, New Jersey, and was organized by the indomitable Cadabra Records. As a record label, Cadabra Records has been tirelessly promoting weird fiction, both newer and older authors, with amazing spoken word recordings of short stories, each with their own musical accompaniment. Since their start in 2015, they have produced a staggering number of releases featuring classics by H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and M.R. James, along with newer authors like Thomas Ligotti, Jon Padgett, and Matthew M. Bartlett. They are able to bring the stories new life by pairing them with the perfect voice and adding a suitably ominous musical soundscape. Cadabra Records has hosted a few performance events in the past where they recreated some of their record releases live with the associated vocal talent and musician/composer performing to a live audience. I have been fortunate enough to attend two of these events, Jon Padgett, Chris Bozzone, and Barry Knob performing Thomas Ligotti’s “The Bungalow House” and the same cohort performing Thomas Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet.” Both of these were tremendous experiences, with the prior introducing me to both the work of Thomas Ligotti and Jon Padgett. The Nightlands Festival was Cadabra Records’ first large scale live event, spanning two full days with performances of more than eight of Cadabra’s record releases, spanning numerous vocal talents and musicians. Beyond just celebrating the auditory component of Cadabra Records, many of the artists Cadabra has featured were able to attend the event, as well.
|The Nightlands festival was held at a repurposed Catholic Church!
Day 1: Friday, June 2nd
I attended the Nightlands Festival with my brother Eric (who took all the pictures in this post) and a close friend, and we arrived early Friday afternoon at the Kathedrel Event Center, an old Catholic Church that has been turned into a venue. It seemed very appropriate to hold an event celebrating supernatural horror in the belly of a cavernous old church. The far end of the building featured a large stage with a table situated at the center for the vocal performer to sit and read, and then two other tables behind to the left and right, one for Barry Knob’s sound equipment and synthesizers (Knob has produced and provided musicianship to a sizeable number of Cadabra releases) and the other for Chris Bozzone’s musical equipment (Chris performed the music for the majority of the weekend). To accommodate the audience, a huge arrangement of sturdy fold up chairs (enough for at least 300 people) took the place of what surely had been pews when the venue had been a church. At the back of the main room, a collection of tables was set up for vendors, including the venerable Hippocampus Press and a number of the artists Cadabra has employed over the years: Jeremy Hush, Paul Romano, Dave Felton, Matthew Jaffe, and Josh Yelle.
The day began with the story “Count Magnus” by M.R. James. Excitingly, the story was introduced by literary critic S.T. Joshi, who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on supernatural horror in literature. Joshi touched upon the interesting life that James led, having lived seemingly three very productive lives, as distinguished medieval scholar, as professor at Cambridge University, and as a writer of ghost stories (for which he is now best remembered). The story was read by Robert Lloyd Parry, a literary storyteller who specializes in readings of M.R. James’ work. Music was performed by Chris Bozzone with Barry Knob monitoring audio levels and providing extra atmospherics. It is a great story and perhaps one of my favorites of Cadabra’s recent releases. In it, the narrator describes a series of papers that they acquired, written by a British travel guide writer (Mr. Wraxall) describing a single experience in Sweden, the account of which terminates shortly before Wraxall’s own death. His time in Sweden takes him to an old manor house which had been in the domain of Count Magnus De la Gardie, who went on the Black Pilgrimage in a quest for eternal life. Wraxall’s own quest for knowledge pertaining to the Black Pilgrimage and the Count proves to be his undoing. The story was a fitting way to start the weekend, as it did an apt job foreshadowing the entire event. It is a story with a careful eye for detail and historical context, and features a ghost that is not an ectoplasmic phantom. Like all of the weird tales performed at Nightlands, it eschewed the trappings of popular horror fiction, making for a much more unsettling and unearthly experience.
|Robert Lloyd Parry enchanting us with his reading of Count Magnus: “His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over-inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end.”
The next story of the day was Thomas Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet” read by Jon Padgett with music performed by Chris Bozzone and atmospherics again by Barry Knob. I had the pleasure of experiencing a live performance of the story in July of 2022 at Barry Knob’s recording studio, Retro City Studios. I was eager to hear the story again, as Padgett is an incredible performer, able to apply just the right intonation to each word to evoke the appropriate emotion. In the story, the unnamed narrator describes how his life has been punctuated by visitations from a puppet in the guise of a clown, each of these visitations while he is employed at mundane and lonely jobs, every visitation at a new place of employment. These visits, the narrator suggests, demonstrate how their existence consists of nothing but the most “outrageous nonsense”. In describing one particular late night visit at a medicine shop, the narrator comes to suspect that there is nothing unique or special about his puppet visits, or his life in general. I was again thrilled with Padgett’s ability to fully take on the essence of the character in the story, capturing their changing moods, from resigned acceptance to barbed sarcasm. Padgett’s performance was complemented by the layer of synthesized atmospheric sound the Bozzone was performing, punctuated by solemn piano, mounting throughout the story to mimic the mounting distress of the narrator.
|Jon Padgett, with the help of Barry Knob (left) and Chris Bozzone, demonstrates the nonsensicality of our lives with a spirited performance of “The Clown Puppet”.
Along with a performance of “The Clown Puppet”, Padgett also read Thomas Ligott’s “The Red Tower”. It is another remarkable story, where the narrator describes a deserted three story factory of crimson brick (the titular Red Tower) and its history of creating grotesque novelty goods. The narrator believes that the Red Tower was constantly at war with the barren and greyish desolation of the surrounding landscape, positing that the factory only gained its red hue as a means of defiance to the greyish landscape. The desolate landscape attempted to reclaim the Tower and return it to nothingness, leading to the evaporation of all of the Tower’s manufacturing machinery. The amount of information the narrator knows about the Red Tower, and in exquisite detail, is surprising given the apparently clandestine nature of its operations, and calls into question the veracity of their statements.
The day also featured a performance of Edogawa Rampo's “The Human Chair” read by Laurence R. Harvey with music by Slasher Film Festival Strategy, and H. P. Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear" read by Andrew Leman, with music by Chris Bozzone. Come back in the near future for a more complete write-up about these performances, and discussion of the second day of the festival!