Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand

“The house was a glorious wreck. Like some drunken grande dame who’s lost everything except the clothes and the jewels she’s wearing and refuses to leave the after-party. I’ve known a few of those girls.”

Point me in the direction of a novel about a rock band and chances are I’ll want to read it, so the blurb from Elizabeth Hand’s novel Wylding Hall caught my attention. This is the story of an “acid-folk” band (not quite sure what that is) who, after their first album and the firing and subsequent suicide of their former lead female singer, were persuaded by their manager to hole up in an ancient country mansion and record their next album. It’s the album (named Wylding Hall) that makes the band soar to fame, but during its creation, some unexplained events occur which result in the disappearance of the band’s 18-year-old enigmatic singer/songwriter/lead guitarist, Julian. The novel begins years later, and the narrative takes the form of one-sided interviews with band members, friends, lovers and the former manager as they each relate the events of that summer.

Sounds fascinating, and I couldn’t help remembering the mystery surrounding the death of Brian Jones. But of course, in the case of Wylding Hall, there’s no body floating in the pool.

Wylding HallWhen the band arrives at Wylding Hall, there’s already an aura of tragedy. The band’s singer, Arianna was replaced with an American, named Les Stansall, and Arianna didn’t take the news well. Her death lingers over the band members and petty rivalries threaten to splinter the group further. The new singer Les has hooked up with Julian, arguably the more intelligent member of the band. Les and Julian break up however when a new, strange woman comes on the scene.

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. The novel’s format–the transcripts of several one-sided interviews, sometimes just a few lines in length, is interesting and feels authentic. We don’t know the questions being asked, and all we get are the responses, so, for example, various interviewees give their opinions of Arianna:

He never talked about what happened with Arianna. The police report said she fell from a third floor window to the pavement. There were no bars across the window in Julian’s flat; I do know that. She was depressive–that’s what they’d say now–her and Julian both.

Suicide? How could it possible matter all these years later, whether I think she killed herself?

When the band arrive at Wylding Hall, their presence sets yet another tragedy in motion. Julian, already into “magick” and alchemy wants the album to be “a kind of spell.”  He seems to already be familiar with the house–or perhaps the house is familiar with him…

As for the plot, I’d say this book, with its emphasis on the occult, ancient rituals, and creepy villagers who know more than they’re saying, may appeal to fans of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service . While I enjoy a good ghost story or even a plunge into the supernatural (thinking of Frank Tallis’s The Sleep Room), Wylding Hall pushed credulity too far, and its emphasis on a period spent in an old house bypasses any deeper analysis. Perhaps if the band members had been a little wilder, more stoned, let’s say, the almost blasé acceptance of events at the time would have been more believable. There’s one point when one of the band member’s girlfriends, Nancy, comes to visit. She’s sensitive to atmosphere and at the point of the interviews, she’s become a psychic.

Wylding Hall was a bad scene. Or, no, scratch that. “Bad” isn’t the right word. We’re not talking good or evil, Christian morality, sort of thing. This went much deeper than that. There was a sense of wrongness of things being out of balance–again, not something you would necessarily be aware of if you were just to walk into the house.

For this reader, Wylding Hall with its lack of character development and a reliance on the supernatural seemed more for the Young Adult age group, so that counts me out. And if I’d known the band was called Windhollow Faire, I’d have passed, but in all fairness, there are plenty of glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads from people who enjoyed this story.

Review copy.

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hand Elizabeth

16 responses to “Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand

  1. Like you, I love novels about rock bands. This one sounded good until I got nearer the bottom of your review! You might like to check out ‘Chinaski’ by Frances Vick (which I reviewed here) which was all about how the people in and around an up and coming British band cope after the death of its lead singer.

    • I bought Chinaski after reading your review Annabel(thanks). I recommended Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan in another comment, so I’ll repeat the recommendation here. It’s 40 years in the music biz through the eyes of an Anglo-Irish lawyer’s involvement w/ a rock band.

  2. I think one of my goddaughters might like this one, especially given your closing comments about its suitability for YA readers. The set-up sounds great – I guess the album was recorded in the sixties? (“Acid folk” definitely sounds like the late ’60s/early ’70s to me.)

    • It’s got the occasional character saying ‘fuck’ and I am letting you know so you don’t take any heat. And yes that’s the time frame Jacqui, early 70s.

      • Thanks, Guy – that’s very useful to know. I think that would be okay, she’s fifteen and has probably heard worse in films. I’ll pass it along to her mum, though.

  3. This sounds like a lot of fun. Especially the occult elements.

    As a big fan of Rock and fiction I think that I would like books about Rock groups myself. Have you read he Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie? I have not but I would like to.

  4. Jonathan

    Are there any good novels about rock bands? I can’t think of any.

  5. Evening’s Empire from Bill Flanagan is about a rock band told through the eyes of an Anglo-Irish solicitor. Great book.

  6. I really don’t enjoy it when the author’s use supernatural elements as part of a story so despite being intrigued sadly this one isn’t for me.

  7. The case of the missing musician sounds like she’s alluding to The Manic Street Preachers whose singer disappeared. I think I’ve seen their music labelled acid folk. Beny myers wrote a novel about him called Richard.
    I just read Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and as much as I like that kind of books it didn’t work for me. So if this is even more over the top – not sure it’s for me. I’ve been interested in her work though.

    • I’ve never heard of them but that’s probably because the band is outside of my music interests. I loved the Owl Service as a child and made the mistake of going back and rereading it as an adult.

  8. I wouldn’t call the Manics Acid Folk in a million years I’m afraid Caroline, they’re straight up classic indie. Acid Folk sounds more like a precursor band to Broadcast or something like that. Ben Myers was a music journalist, hence his interest in the Manics, but very different musical forms.

    Windhollow Faire is a dreadful band name, though it fits for the early ’70s.

    This was a shoo-in for my TBR until the bottom of the review. Young adult, hmmm, and pushing credulity. A maybe at this point, and only that because I enjoy horror and fantasy fiction more than many here.

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