Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to record their unique music, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.

Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?
Another week, another decent novella. I wish I’d realized these things existed years ago, I might have ended up with more Halloween recommendations.

Anyway, Wylding Hall! This is a ghost(?) story written as a rock documentary: eight different characters give their accounts of the summer-long production of a British acid-folk album back in the 1970s. It’s a great hook; I love stories that utilize unusual narrative formats/play at being non-fiction, and with all the mythology surrounding that era of music – magick and “devil worship”, subliminal messages and cult shit – it’s the perfect setting for a spooky tale.

Unfortunately, Wylding Hall was not the most engrossing of stories, and I had to kind of drag myself through it. There’s a lot of time spent detailing band dynamics and relationships and history, and a lot of talk about songs that don’t exist.

I can see how all of this goes along with the rock-documentary conceit, but for me, the ratio of rock-documentary to creepy shit was a little too skewed towards the former. It takes a while for the characters to get to talking about their unsettling encounters, and while said encounters are creepy and vividly described, there’s still a level of distance from them, since they’re being recounted nearly fifty years after the fact. Because of this, there are fits and spurts of atmosphere, but not a lot of tension.

Similarly, while I enjoyed the varied perspectives on what transpired, the repetitive and often skeptical recollections end up hamstringing much of the forward motion and established tension. Ultimately, I don’t know that the documentary format contributes as much as it hinders.

For all the references to “the girl” and her relationship with Julian – the doomed singer/songwriter whose mysterious death the story is centered around – peppered throughout the book, I expected her presence to be more substantial. Instead, the story builds to a climax that doesn’t exist; the girl shows up, and then the narrative skips to the discovery that Julian is gone, because the time between can only be accounted for by the vanished characters.

The aftermath, though, is when things got interesting for me. The book finally explicitly discusses the mystery that it’s spent a hundred pages alluding to, and we find out what inspired the resurgence of interest in this obscure 70s band, what the characters think happened to Julian, and get a genuinely creepy sequence involving a set of photos taken on the day the album was recorded.

The photo sequence went a long way towards redeeming Wylding Hall for me. Sure, it reads like the ending of a YouTube horror short, but it was written in such a way that I was actually creeped out for the first time all season.

So yeah, Wylding Hall: there are a lot of great ideas, but maybe a bit too much focus on the less interesting ones. If you’re super into this era of music, with a secondary interest in being spooked, it might work better for you. But for me, with the exception of a couple good scenes, it was pretty boring.

three stars


One Response

  1. brokebunnyblog

    October 27, 2017 8:33 pm, Reply

    As soon as I read the summary of this, I was like “Oh! It’s that author who writes about music and sinister magic!” So thank you for reminding me that Elizabeth Hand is out there.

    I found her novel Black Light at the library ages ago, and it was really good and unnerving. Now I’ve gotta re-read it to see if it holds up…

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