Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, prose-wise, and I just love languidly relaxing into her style. I feel like I’m always looking for the same kind of writing in other authors — and having been remiss in reading Hand for the last few years, it was nice to finally enjoy the real thing again with the short novel Wylding Hall. Her prose is actually more spare than usual; it has to be, as the entire story is told in dialogue. Hand makes it work, though, and Wylding Hall is as atmospheric as her earlier works.
The frame story here is a documentary about the folk band Windhollow Faire, who in the early seventies made a brilliant album that was also their downfall. The band had retreated to the crumbling Wylding Hall to record the album and to regroup after a tragedy. While there, their lead singer, Julian, vanished forever. Forty years later, the surviving band members reflect on what happened.
Hand uses the different points of view to put forth competing theories about Julian’s disappearance, theories that unfold organically from each character’s personality. For example, there’s one band member who’s heavily into the folklore and superstitions of the area, and another who wishes everybody would just shut up about all the woo-woo and get back to the music, and of course they draw vastly different conclusions. There are several possibilities here: Was Julian murdered for mundane reasons? Ritually sacrificed? Did he just flake out and wander off? I thought I knew what had happened, and then the ending threw me one more curveball. The hints leading up to it are there, but I hadn’t put them together in that way.
Wylding Hall is a character in its own right, too. If you’re like me and love spooky old houses, just go order this now. It’s creepy and beautiful and horrific, and its magic is of the sort where space and time just don’t seem to work right. I know some of my fellow FanLitters have read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and if you remember that scene where they tried to walk to the tree, it’s like that. Staircases don’t do what they’re supposed to. Barrow hills seem to grow taller once you’re on them. And oh, how I’d love to spend a day in that library.
I thoroughly enjoyed Wylding Hall; it’s rich with folklore, with vivid personalities (you might be confused by the many POVs early on, but they distinguish themselves quickly), and with a great sense of place and time, and it’s pretty darn scary too. And I’m pretty sure you’ll wish the album was real.
I also had the opportunity to listen to Blackstone Audio’s rendition of Wylding Hall, and I recommend it BIG-TIME. The readers are Jennifer Woodward, John Telfer, Dan Morgan, Emma Fenney, Simon Victor, Kris Dyer, Charlotte Strevens, and David Thorpe. This is a novel that lends itself very well to audio format, and listening to the actors reading it, you really could imagine you’re listening to, say, a radio documentary on NPR about an absolutely real band.
Hand’s writing is always lyrical, and this time it’s actually combined with music and a seemingly gentle haunting that becomes less so as the novella continues.
Thanks so much for this, Kelly, and especially for the Blackstone shoutout. They did an AMAZING job — I feel like the audiobook is better than the original book.
I loved the way they brought out the “group interview” aspect of it. Thank you for stopping by and for writing a terrific book! :)
All in dialogue? Seventies folk group a la Fairport Convention? Sign me up!
This sounds fun and interesting. Great review, Kelly!
Wow, this sounds great. I need to get this.
Thank you SO MUCH for recommending this. Waking the Moon is one of my all time favourite books so I was delighted to hear about a new Elizabeth Hand. I got it on audio straight away and, whilst I haven’t actually read the good old-fashioned book version, I believe that the audio is the way to go. It’s one of those times when the medium really makes a difference to the impact of the book. The only sad things are that I would have loved several more hours of this and now I really, really want to listen to the music. There was a bit of a heatwave whilst I listened to this so I spent some of the time lying under a tree gazing up at the leaves which made it a totally multi-sensory experience although I didn’t see a wren:)
I’m a latecomer to this post, as I’m a latecomer to Elizabeth Hand’s wonderful books. (My very first, barely a month ago, was Waking the Moon.) This is by far the best review I have found of this fantastic short novel –fantastic in every sense of the word.
I was thrilled to find a reference to The Red Tree, because in retrospect I found several parallels between those books. Both books are told by unreliable narrators, both hint at what’s happening but deny you easy answers, both drip with a sense of elusive, yet mounting dread, both circle around a main event known in advance (Sarah’s suicide, Julian’s disappearance).
And I loved how two Wylding Hall characters, half a book apart and without knowing it, repeat the same exact words, as if channeling something…