Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

3 Mins read

Having received 5-star reviews on CFL for her crime novels featuring rock photographer and noir anti-hero Cass Neary, a new release from US author Elizabeth Hand is always worth investigating. Wylding Hall also features photography as part of its plot, while music is integral to this strange story – though here it’s a fictional English folk band from the early 70s.

This short novel draws on the recollections of several characters to portray the mysterious events surrounding a cult record by Windhollow Faire. Wylding Hall, the album, was named after the sprawling Tudor house in Hampshire to which the musicians retreated in 1972 following a tragedy within the group. During a perfect summer, the band’s manager has deliberately isolated the musicians from the temptations and media attention in the capital. Without any distractions, Windhollow Faire spend these halcyon days creating sublime songs and interpreting ancient folk tunes. Rhythm guitarist William Fogerty has been delving into the musical archives, while dandyish singer and guitarist Julian Blake explores the house’s library and finds old songs that have more in common with spells.

With her background in writing dark fantasy, it’s no surprise that Hand’s latest novel draws on elements of the supernatural, mythology and English folklore – “it’s all a bit Wicker Man” says one character after making a discovery at the local inn. The locals seem wary of these dope-smoking hippies, while a farmer warns them not to wander into the woods. The band win the villagers over – and make some money for booze and cigarettes – by busking in the pub. It helps that the landlord has a soft spot for singer Lesley Stansall, an American who “didn’t sound like she was giving you a lecture, the way Joan Baez did.”

While the songwriting sessions are working out perfectly, the house has a strange effect on the individual band members and other visitors. A journalist who inveigles herself into the retreat glimpses a mysterious young girl in the library, one of the many doors opens to a vision of piles of dead birds and a late-night session of drink and dope ends with everyone hearing a singing voice they can’t identify from among the gathering. Some of the visitors to the house are sensitive to its strange vibrations, while others just seem to get lost amid a maze of rooms and hidden passages.

The suspense is heightened by a bold narrative approach, in which the band members and those around them during that summer are being interviewed for a documentary four decades later. These transcripts form the entirety of the novel, which gradually completes the picture – for the band members, as well as the reader – of what happened to Julian Blake that summer as Windhollow Faire worked on their seminal record. Their accounts sometimes contradict each other and their comments are coloured by lingering bitterness and complicated sexual history, which feels realistic. A reference to Snappy Snaps in my edition of Wylding Hall was a bit jarring – the chain of photo processing shops only started in 1983 – and it would be charitable to assume that it’s the character’s mistake. However, it’s a rare false note in this beguiling novel, which is that rare thing: a convincing portrayal of the highs and lows of being in a band (see also From Blue to Black by Joel Lane and Espedair Street by Iain Banks).

Don’t expect a plot-heavy crime story. Wylding Hall is an absorbing Gothic mystery steeped in the 70s music scene (Steelyeye Span, Lou Reed and Van Morrison get mentions) with an engaging cast of musicians. While they are true to type (the frustrated rocker on drums, the foppish frontman), Hand has created a realistic band – after reading about their heady days holed up in this isolated old house, you can almost hear their haunting folk songs. The presence of a female NME journalist is also a nice touch, particularly as the narrative features her interview and review of the band’s debut album, a forgotten acid-folk masterpiece that enjoys a revival thanks to the modern folk movement. But while the songs and their ancient musical inspiration are clearly powerful, it’s the album cover that captures the mystery at the heart of this story.

A third Cass Neary novel, Hard Light, is published in April 2016. Read our interview with Elizabeth Hand here.

Open Road Media

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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