“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.
When 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.