No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 21, 2015

2015/35: Wylding Hall -- Elizabeth Hand

"...You know that feeling you get, that time is passing faster or slower? Well, it really is moving differently. When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways into a different space that’s inside the normal world. It’s folded in. Do you see?” [loc. 355]

Short but powerful, Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall is a dark rural fantasy. It's told by members and associates of the folk band Windhollow Fayre, in excerpts from interviews forty years after the disappearance of lead singer Julian Blake. In the summer of 1972, following the death of former lead singer Arianna, the band (with new singer Lesley, an American teenager) retreat to a secluded country manor house to work on their second album. The house is huge and rambling, and there is a constant smell of fresh woodsmoke. Several of the characters lose their way -- and find inexplicable, or unnerving, rooms -- at various times.

The interpersonal relationships of the band, their friends and lovers are complicated and intense. Julian and Lesley hook up, but it doesn't last. Nancy, who's been guitarist Will's girlfriend for a couple of years, arrives on a visit and starts screaming in terror -- though she doesn't explain her behaviour to the others. Like several incidents in the book, it's clear that the individual concerned hasn't told anyone about what happened, until now. This, I think, is an important part of Wylding Hall's effect: that the reader, with all these snippets of information from various perspectives, can piece together more of the story than any of the characters. And as the story builds, our perceptions of the people in it change. They don't know they're in a dark fantasy, after all. They just want to get stoned and have sex and make music.

We never get the whole story: only Julian could tell that, and his narrative isn't part of this book. We hear his voice at one remove, recounted by his friends: a technique that at once distances and draws in the reader.

The eeriness is awesome -- and very English. A bird battering itself against a window; a village pub (The Wren) with pictures of 'quaint folk traditions' in cheap frames; an earthen mound in the woods that is higher than it seems; a mysterious figure who appears in photos ... At Wylding Hall, time seems fluid: is that because of the blurring effects of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, or the timelessness of creative space, or is there something less commonplace going on?

There are a couple of anachronisms that jolted me. Billy gets his photos developed at Snappy Snaps (founded in the 1980s); the music papers mentioned are 'Rolling Stone ... and Mojo and NME', but Mojo was founded in 1993, while the early Seventies were the heyday of Melody Maker and Sounds. These are petty niggles but could easily have been avoided.

I like this best of the Elizabeth Hand books I've read. Because of the music? Maybe. Because of the English eerie? More likely.

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