In the early 70s, a British acid-folk band bursts into the music scene. Their second album—called "Wylding Hall" for the location of its recording—with its amazing songs and eerie cover becomes a cult classic after the lead guitarist and songwriter Julian Blake’s mysterious disappearance. Assumed dead, the details of his vanishing are fuzzy and no one has really talked about what really happened that summer. Until now. Decades later, the recording of a documentary slowly unveils the hidden mysteries of Wylding Hall.
In this short novel by Elizabeth Hand, the narrative also plays its part in conveying not only the mystery of that summer but also the ways that stories are told, remembered—or misremembered, as the case may be. Here, the surviving members of Windhollow Faire take turns in a cleverly constructed documentary-style narration that feeds off each other’s accounts of those days. The question of whose account to trust is ever-present here: not only has it been decades since the events being remembered but also each person has their own bias, their own personal experiences with Julian, their own ways of dealing with what happened. Not only that: each has had their own personal encounters with supernatural events that took place then but which only become clear now once the complete narrative is being revealed and becomes a fully shaped picture.
Back then, on the heels of the success of their album and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the death of one member of the band, their manager arranged for the group to spend the summer recording their second album at Wylding Hall, a manor house in the middle of nowhere, England. The house itself is also a character here—in a state of disrepair, remotely standing tall on its own historical background with rooms traveling back in time to the Tudor period (and possibly even before then). Part of the fun in reading this novel is to follow the petty conflicts between the band as well as the characters’ memories of their explorations of the grounds and rooms. Some of them found hidden secrets, a few of them saw impossible things, and a few others heard sounds that were not supposed to be there. All of them preferred to forget or pretend they never happened until now.
And at the centre of it all, Julian and the girl. The girl whom he had an affair with (maybe); the girl that (most) members of the band met; the ethereal girl who appears on the cover. The girl no one really knows.
At once psychological thriller—who is telling the truth? Is there one truth to be told at all?—and ghost story, Wylding Hall travels very familiar territory. It is no less exhilarating and even downright scary. And for such a short novel, there is a lot here to digest: in terms of character development, in terms of folklore, the narrative style as well as Hand’s beautiful atmospheric writing. Plus, I also suspect that those readers who, unlike me, know more about the particular type of folkish songs the band performed as well the culture surrounding it, will get an extra layer from it. I would say this is excellent Halloween material, the type of ghostly tale that I love to read.
In Book Smugglerish: 7 out of 10.