I thought we had accomplished something breathtaking with that session, and I believed it was a harbinger of great things to come. The beginning of something wonderful for Windhollow Faire, when in fact it was the opposite.
It’s England, summer of 1972. The acid-folk band Windhollow Faire is reeling from the apparent suicide of former singer Arianna, which is why their manager compels them to hole up at an old manor in the country to write and record their next LP. Wylding Hall, it’s called, an ancient building; part of it dates back to the Norman Conquest. The hall is surrounded by natural beauty and awash in dark secrets. Nobody from the band could predict what would happen next: the sudden and strange disappearance of lead singer/songwriter Julian Blake…
Now, decades later, a young documentary filmmaker wants to tell the story of Wylding Hall and Julian’s disappearance, interviewing the surviving musicians, their manager, their ex-lovers. Each tells their own versions of what happened that fateful summer, dredging up old memories filtered through personal biases, nostalgia, and the passage of time. The details begin to add up, though it brings us no closer to finding the mystery of Julian Blake. Whose story, if any, is true? What happened to Julian Blake? And what about that strange girl who appeared out of nowhere, and vanished with Blake into the nothingness from which she came?
Wylding Hall is written as a present-day documentary; all the key players are interviewed individually, commenting on others’ interviews or responding to questions from a filmmaker/interviewer who never appears in the text. These characters look back on a halcyon summer that turned into a surreal mystery; some seekers of the occult read supernatural influences into the matter, while non believers take more rational approaches. And I have to say, that documentary approach is masterful. It feels so authentic and real, like the author was writing a transcript of a real show and not just a novella. It also works wonders in how it introduces us to the characters and shows us their perspective of events (and their interpretations) all these years later.
Elizabeth Hand even creates an eerie, haunting atmosphere, just from the characters’ present-day reflections, retelling odd occurrences that happened while they recorded their breakthrough album. It’s not a scary horror story by any means, a methodical ghost story that uses its rich atmosphere to build unease. You start to get strange feelings as certain themes or details pop up in the musicians’ interviews, things that they may not have even picked up on. Different characters saw pieces of the puzzle, and only we as readers are lucky enough to see it all put together. And even then, the details are hazy and incomplete… the “true” story of Julian Blake may never be known.
I found the novella very effective, a surreal ghost story and compelling read. Its view of the ’70s folk-rock scene feels authentic and genuine, and that look into ’70s counterculture helped draw me in even though it’s not something I’m that familiar with. Elizabeth Hand’s writing has its moments of poetic, lyrical beauty, creating lush summer days and chilly, atmospheric nights. The novella won the Shirley Jackson Award, and for good reason: this novella is a gem. If you are a fan of ghost stories, weird tales, or supernatural fiction, this is one you should read. Fans of ’70s psychedelic folk may also get a kick out of it.
Title: Wylding Hall
Author: Elizabeth Hand
First Published: July 2015
What I Read: Open Road Media ebook, 2015
Price I Paid: $3.82
MSRP: £15 ($18.71) hc / $4.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1848638930 / B00UA1KO82