In the land before time, I taught Audio Engineering with a focus on film sound. Consequently, I have a particular fondness for fiction in the “manager locks up band in a secluded location to record an album & mayhem ensues” genre, which intersects in interesting ways with the “ghost hunters bite off more than they can chew in a secluded house” and the related “student filmmakers set up shop in a haunted house and mayhem ensues” genres. Much like the actual entertainment industry, in horror fiction it’s all fun and games in the haunted house, until its not. Then it’s still fun and games for the reader, and doubly so for those of us who feel like we’ve lived some of these scenes in real-life, albeit with less bloodshed and more substance abuse.
But I digress.
Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) is a novella structured in a sort of behind-the-music-esque epistolary form. It’s got band drama, a creepy house, a mystery, and enough similarity to actual events to create a frisson of reality for readers who know a bit of English folk music history. Plus, it has a potentially colorful cast of characters wistfully trying to recount events from a time when they were all young, beautiful, and wasted. Hand weaves this all together in an intriguing manner and this is a fast, fun, eerie read.
Forty years after the mysterious disappearance of their lead guitarist, the surviving members of the fictional acid-folk band Windhollow Faire, their manager, and one band member’s ex-girlfriend (now a professional psychic) sit for individual interviews with a documentarian. The narrative unfolds as we jump from interview snippet to interview snippet. Although I feel that Hand did a brilliant job of creating and maintaining mystery and suspense using this technique, and each character is well-realized, their voices are too similar and I often found myself skipping back a page to remind myself who is supposed to be speaking. In less-skillful hands, this would sink the book, but the story is intriguing enough to put up with this minor annoyance.
So, the plot, without spoilers: After (fictional) acid-folk band Windhollow Faire releases their first album, their lead singer dies at the apartment of lead guitarist, Julian Drake. A new lead lead singer is recruited to replace dearly departed but not especially talented Annabelle. Their manager rents a medieval country house in Hampshire and stashes them away for 3 months to write, rehearse, and recover from the tragedy.
Hand was inspired by the true story of the British folk band Fairport Convention, whose manager rented a country house in Hampshire called Farley Chamberlayne so they could regroup after the tragic deaths of their drummer and their lead guitarist’s girlfriend, and record a new album.
I don’t know if Fairport Convention invoked any otherworldly forces during their time in Hampshire. but Windhollow Faire get more than they bargained for when clues emerge that Julian’s brilliant songwriting may be more than metaphorically magical.
In a lengthy interview with Locus, excerpted online on the magazine’s website, Hand talks about her folk-horror vision for Wylding Hall:
‘‘Just because you’re young and really stoned and in a weird creepy place, that doesn’t mean something really weird and creepy isn’t actually happening. I like the notion, too, that you don’t know you’ve seen a ghost until afterward. There’s an Edith Wharton story called ‘Afterward’. Somebody saw something, or they didn’t see something, and then later on they put it together and realized they had seen a ghost. I wanted to play with that, the idea of sunlit horror. Most of Wylding Hall takes place during the day.”
In a recent review of another book by Hand (Waking the Moon), I grumbled a lot about the lengthy insertions of lyrics and incantations. These inclusions are much more effective in Wylding Hall, and they also make more narrative sense as we’re meant to be watching musicians participating in the age-old process of adapting and contemporizing traditional ballads. That process is not only a vital way to keep the art form alive, but also a vital way to conjure dark forces which will allow mayhem to ensue. And at the end of the day, you can’t ask for much more than that from a lively horror story about a group of musicians in a creepy house!