Friday, June 30, 2023

Wylding Hall

Elizabeth Hand
Completed 6/30/2023, Reviewed 6/30/2023
3 stars

I was not enamored with this book.  It took a while for me to get into it, and with it being a short novel/long novella, the story was almost over when I felt it got engrossing.  I’ve only read two other books by hand, Winterlong and Waking the Moon.  I liked the first and loved the second.  I really like how Hand writes, but the story itself is sometimes a little lacking.  That’s how I felt about this book.  Told in an interview format with the surviving members of a British folk-rock band that spent a summer in a haunted house, the writing was very good, but the buildup was lacking.  Nonetheless, it won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Novella (a horror award), and was nominated for a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.  

In the ‘70’s when folk was king, a band named Windhollow Faire is sent to a countryside manor to focus on creating a second album.  As you would expect, there’s a lot of sex, drugs, and music.  Everything seems normal until strange things start happening, like hearing ethereal music, seeing thousands of wrens cover the sun, and an apparition of an androgynous girl with two rows of teeth.  Julian, the creative genius of the band, finds books on the supernatural and the occult.  And while this inspires him to make incredible acid-folk songs, it also causes his disappearance.  Years later, after the band has attained a retro-cult status, a documentarian interviews the surviving band members, their producer, a rock critic, and several others on the events of that summer.  

The buildup of the haunting is very slow.  As much as I love music and have loved fantasy books about musicians, I was wasn’t drawn into the creative process of developing an album.  Of course, the process involves the egos, relationships, in-fighting, pot and acid, and booze.  Here, it also involves Julian’s obsession with the occult.  I didn’t find these elements to had much oomph to them.  Hand’s writing kept me reading though, and I was rewarded with the disappearance of Julian. That’s what finally reeled me in.

While I found it boring, the first half of the book is clearly necessary to paint the characters for the reader.  When Julian disappears, the rest of the book details everyone’s fear, confusion, and horror at the event.  And without understanding the band members, you won’t appreciate this. Worth noting is the only American in the band, Lesley, the amazing singer who is in somewhat of a relationship with Julian.  She was both a very mature and very immature seventeen-year-old at the time who went on to have her own successful career in music.  She is the first to notice the disappearance.  Another character of note is Tom, the driven producer/manager who sets up this retreat to the countryside manor.  I liked his perspective and his belief in the band.  

With each of Hand’s books, I’m always surprised at how well written they are.  I was in this case as well.  At first I balked at the interview style with constant cuts between the interviewees.  But it told the story fairly linearly and was easy to follow.  I particularly liked two scenes: one where the band is having an outdoor spontaneous jam session that becomes their second album, and their night performing at a pub for the locals in the small town in which the manor is located.  Both scenes are very alive and vivid.  I could feel the joy of the band as they get to do what they do best.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  That’s sort of an average of my not caring for the first half and then being engrossed in the second half.  I’ll probably read one more book by Hand this year, as I created a reading challenge on Worlds Without End that features the three prominent Elizabeths in genre fiction:  Hand, Moon, and Bear.

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