WYLDING HALL by Elizabeth Hand. Book review

WYLDING HALL by Elizabeth Hand, PS Publishing, h/b, £15.00/signed-slipcased edition, £35.00, Web Address

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

So, there I am, innocently roaming around the dealers room at Eastercon when I am suddenly faced with a wild-eyed Pete Crowther (of PS Publishing). He’s spotted my Fairport Convention t-shirt and wants to tell me about this book I really, really need to read. I am held captive for several minutes while he extols the virtues of this book and why it will appeal to me. The only way I am finally able to escape is to promise to review the damn thing!

To be fair, Pete had me pretty much sussed. A sort of cross between a folk-horror story and a mock-rockumentary, featuring an early 70s acid-folk band was always going to capture my interest.

I’d heard of author, Elizabeth hand, but had never read any of her books. If Wylding Hall is typical of the quality of her writing this is obviously a situation I need to rectify.

Windhollow Faire are a folk-rock band, with a first album of trad. folk covers under their belt. They have a new female vocalist and have been sequestered in a remote hall in darkest Hampshire to write a new album. This one is to feature mainly new songs, as opposed to old folk covers.

It can’t be denied that there are quite a few parallels with Fairport Convention. New girl singer after the first album, virtuoso teenage guitarist (albeit Julian Blake is obviously closer to a Nick Drake figure than Richard Thompson) regrouping after a tragedy and renting an old house in the country to work on new material. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though.

It’s so nice to find an author stepping into the world of music who actually knows what she’s writing about. Unlike, for instance, Anne Rice, whose description of the band, Satan’s Night Out, in The Vampire Lestat was so unbelievably lame that it really marred that book for me.

Others have commented on how well-written Wylding Hall is. I certainly agree. The really clever part is the way Elizabeth Hand uses the rockumentary interview format to gradually provide more pieces to the puzzle. “The girl” is mentioned in passing by one interviewee, then another mentions her. The mixture of their memory of the events, and more to the point their impressions and opinions reminded me of an out of focus photograph, which gradually becomes clearer as you read on. Shifting point of view in this manner is never easy to achieve and the skill in presenting a mixture of shared and individual experiences through the eyes of the very different personalities involved is considerable.

“The girl” as you would suspect, is a major part of the supernatural element of the story. Who is she? What is she? Sometimes when a story raises questions like this, it can feel like a cop out if they’re not adequately explained by the end. In this case, the sheer ambiguity of the events is part of it’s strength. It’s the sort of book one can enjoy discussing with other readers, comparing theories about just what exactly did happen to Julian Blake. It left me with the odd conflict of really wanting more, but at the same time hoping there won’t be a sequel.

I have, on more than one occasion, suggested that a particular book would adapt well to TV, or film. I’ll go further here. I really want to see an adaptation of this book in a visual media. As I read, I could easily envision interview segments fading into dramatic scenes. It would work so well. It would, of course, involve actually finding musicians to compose/play the songs, but there are people out there who could certainly do it. Phil Rickman managed it for his brilliant and similarly themed book, December, and the resulting CD album, Abbey Tapes: The Exorcism by Philosopher’s Stone is genuinely good. Needless to say, I want to hear the Wylding Hall soundtrack album!