I think it only happens when you’re young. This weird sense of possibility; a kind of knowledge. You know there’s a door, and even if you can’t see it, you can sense it opening, and if you’re quick enough, you can slip inside. (Ch. 12)
Elizabeth Hand’s new novella, Wylding Hall, presents itself as the typescript of a series of interviews, striving to piece together the events that took place over forty years previously, during the 1970s, when upcoming acid-folk group Windhollow Faire spent a summer in the eponymous, semi-ruined mansion in rural Hampshire. Constructed from first-person testimonies edited together to form a continuous narrative, the text combines the memories, theories, and observations of four of the five band members, Will, Jon, Ashton, and Lesley; their agent, Tom Haring; Patricia Kenyon, a music journalist; Nancy, Will’s one-time girlfriend and professional witch/psychic; and remediated newspaper reports. Wylding Hall is therefore an epistolary novel for the media age, in which the distance imposed between the events and their retelling serves to heighten rather than resolve the mystery at its heart. The reader is confronted, not just with a single past, but with multiple, often conflicting or imperfectly remembered pasts, along with forgotten histories and folkways, buried atrocities, dusty archives concealed by labyrinthine passages, and weed-blurred personal memories. The result is a threadbare narrative tapestry, a jumble of faded patches from which a full picture can barely be reconstructed. As Tom Haring himself puts it early on, “We have some ideas about what actually went on, of course, but the fans, they can only speculate. Which is always good for business” (Ch. 1).
In the passage quoted at the beginning of this review, Jon, the drummer, goes some way towards crystallising the ways in which, as Tom’s half-serious quip implies, the novella juxtaposes supernatural mystery with economic reality, the “possibility” opened up for the band by the months spent rehearsing in Wylding Hall being both worldly and otherworldly. Tom has hired the isolated house for Windhollow Faire as a way of distracting them from the alleged suicide of Arianna, their singer and the girlfriend of the only band member who never “speaks”—Julian Blake, the songwriter and lead guitarist—and in the hope that they’ll come up with that difficult second album. Tom is therefore anxious for the band to produce enough bankable tracks to justify his investment in them. By contrast, most of the band (in their late teens and early twenties in the 1970s) seem happy just to have time to concentrate on their music, smoke some weed, drink some beer, and indulge in some casual if emotionally fraught sex. However, Julian, as we learn through the partial, interlocking testimonies, seems to have somehow got himself involved in ancient spells and rituals that are inextricably but also inscrutably tied to the local area, in particular to the house and a nearby “long barrow” or rath (the Irish term for it, used by a local family of second-generation immigrants—a narrative thread worth exploring further). Indeed, Will notes that Julian was strangely familiar with the place from the very beginning, showing the others around like a tour guide, and providing a running commentary on its history, architecture, and layout, while insisting that he had never been there before.
As each narrator introduces themselves, comments on the others, and slowly unravels the events that lead up to Julian’s disappearance, the reader becomes a kind of privileged witness, given access to apparently disparate snippets of information that add up to something both clearer and more ambiguous than the interpretations offered by any one narrative voice. Julian’s puzzling knowledge of the house is therefore rendered more significant by vaguely foreboding hints dropped in the early chapters. Tom, for example, states quite baldly early on,
They were golden boys and girls, that was a golden summer, and we had the Summer King.
And we all know what happens to the Summer King.
Tom here displays his fairly detailed understanding of the kind of “myth and ritual” anthropology that some readers may have previously encountered in works like James Fraser’s The Golden Bough and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, an understanding shared by both Will and Julian (though dismissed as superstition by Ashton). For fans of the fantasy and horror genres (especially films like The Wicker Man, or the work of Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, or Charles De Lint), or indeed of Hand’s own writing, this is well-trodden ground, but no less satisfying for that. The Summer King, who is first fêted and then ritually murdered, to ensure fine weather and abundant crops for the coming harvest, is only mentioned once in Wylding Hall, but those who have read Hand’s 1994 novel Waking the Moon will be put on their guard by Tom’s comment. As the plot develops, it soon becomes horribly clear that the youth, beauty, and promise of the members of Windhollow Faire are both a blessing and curse.
Indeed, paeans to the band’s youth, which punctuate a narrative grounded in the members’ nostalgia for their own glory days (and that of folk music itself), are deliberately and eerily juxtaposed with parallel depictions of Wylding Hall’s extreme age. The house, the interviewees speculate, is a mosaic of different time periods, containing sections that appear to be Bronze Age (though, as the journalist Patricia Kenyon points out, “parts of it were older than that” [Ch. 8]), while others are apparently Norman, Tudor, Civil War, and Victorian. Full of locked doors, empty rooms, priceless mouldering furniture, and strange, grotesque carvings, Wylding Hall strongly recalls Bly House in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, also a rambling, historical hybrid. Prefiguring Kenyon’s observation, Bly is described as “antique” but “embodying a few features of a building still older.” The allusion is fitting, since both texts are by American authors but set in England, establishing a system of meaning in which haunting and terror become fundamentally Old-World characteristics, by-products of an impossibly ancient landscape into which the young characters, accustomed to the bustle of London (and, in Lesley’s case, to America itself), stumble unawares.
In keeping with the gothic intertexts (Stephen King’s story “Crouch End,” set in London, seems also to be lurking in the background), much of the novella is taken up with scenes in which the narrators attempt to explore the older sections of the house, with varying degrees of success. Patricia Kenyon finds a narrow stone staircase that she follows in the hope of scoring some juicy gossip on the band, and describes climbing it as “like climbing into [her] own tomb” (Ch. 8). Later, Ashton and Jon discover a passage behind a wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. They climb in, and find themselves walking in the dark for at least ten minutes before Jon freaks out and insists that they turn back. Afterwards, none of them can ever locate it again, or even remember which room it was in. As Lesley puts it, “Whenever I explored the old Tudor wing by myself, I’d find locked doors that wouldn’t open; then the next time, they would. No one had a key” (Ch. 12).
This sense of a shared disorientation, and indeed of the house’s open hostility to intruders, is also notable in the series of minor injuries sustained by several of the band members, injuries that leave scars. Jon is scratched by a branch poking in the window of Julian’s car as they drive up to the place, and displays the scar almost proudly to the faceless, voiceless interviewer; Ashton steps on a bird’s beak when he stumbles into a mysterious room full of dead wrens—pulling it out leaves a scar that never fully heals. Lesley (who, as an American, is doubly an outsider) is scarred, not once, but twice. When Will’s girlfriend Nancy, a psychically gifted young woman, shows up at the house to surprise him, she finds herself inexplicably rendered immobile, as if in a waking nightmare. Concerned, Lesley touches Nancy, only to find that her skin is so preternaturally cold that it causes instant blisters, leaving on Lesley's hand white scars that are still visible to this day. Later, when she realises that Julian is missing, Lesley goes into his room in search of him. There, she finds what she takes to be a dead bird, one of many that seem to have dashed themselves to death against the walls. Not quite lifeless yet, it pricks her palm with a claw, causing a wound that turns into a nasty boil, which later bursts, leaving a scar that still hurts when Lesley plays.
It is tiny details like this that help to build the creeping unease that defines the book, an unease rendered all the more effective for its framing within the quasi-forensic discourse of the interviews and newspaper reports. To reveal what happens to Julian, and what the band members see, both in the nearby pub (full of stony-faced locals straight out of a Shirley Jackson short story) and in a set of photographs that establish the modern, technological world as being by no means immune from ancient, supernatural forces, would be to spoil the story. That said, Wylding Hall is so short, so allusive, so inconclusive, that one can read it right to the end without feeling as if the air of mystery that it has conjured up has been in any way dispelled or spoiled. At around 150 pages, Elizabeth Hand’s newest offering gives you just enough weirdness and enchantment to get you hooked, to present a mystery, to unfold an atmospheric tale of magic, music, and mind-altering substances—and then to leave you more confused than ever, and hungry for more. Fans of Hand’s sprawling Waking the Moon and her short-story collection Errantry (2012) in particular will find much to enjoy in this eerie fantasy, in which folk legends, drug-addled musicians with a taste for ancient ballads, and ageless feminine evil combine to form a compulsively readable, hauntingly suggestive piece of mythopoeic fiction.
Dara Downey lectures in English in Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. She is the author of American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (Palgrave, 2014) and co-editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. She is also a committee member of The Irish Association for American Studies.