For those readers who are too young to have memories of the seventies “Wylding Hall” might read like a curiosity. For readers like myself who was roughly the same age as the protagonists, the novel accurately captures the ‘feel’, music, and memories of youth. Old music spurs memories like nothing else can.
Written from the viewpoints of various members of a British folk-rock band – and told in the style of a documentary interview – “Wylding Hall” is not at all what I expected. It was more.
The youth of the seventies were at once innocent and wise. Jaded by life yet unblemished in their unquenchable thirst for new experiences. The protagonists are reminiscing to an unknown interviewer. The topic of their nostalgic recollections takes place in the early seventies. Windhollow Faire, a London based folk-rock band, they had only one album under their belt. Their female lead singer had just commit suicide. To help them recover, their manager has rented them an old country manor house for three months of the summer. His plan and fervent wish is that the beautiful, remote and removed location will inspire their musical prowess and will bring about a chart-topping second album.
There is no doubt that they are very talented. And young, so young. They range in age from seventeen to twenty. With only one girl among them, and the only American, Lesley is a singer/songwriter of great talent and charisma. Julian is the lead guitar player and the main songwriter of the group. He is from an upper class British background. He is beautiful to look at and his musical talent is impressive. Julian is a ‘sensitive’ who is interested in the history of folk music and arcana. Jon is the drummer, a very young gay man who has yet to exit the closet. Will plays rhythm guitar, fiddle and mandolin. Ashton is the super-talented bassist.
Oh, and the house. Wylding Hall was just as much a character in the narrative as the group members. An enchanting manor house deep in the bowels of Hampshire, it’s main structure dates back to the fourteenth century with additions of later centuries tacked on. The house was at once chilling and welcoming. Wylding Hall seemed to intensify the feelings of those who inhabited it. It had myriad rooms with secret passages and hidey holes. It had a minstrel gallery with no apparent way to access it. A beautiful library containing arcana, Celtic and other ancient texts. Another room that was carpeted in bird feathers…
The dynamic of the group members, the house, the time, culminated in a mysterious ‘happening’ that they all remember, even though they would far rather forget.
Together they lived out the summer in a dream-like state. Part of this was brought about by alcohol and drugs, but most of it was just their youthful enthusiasm, friendship, and naivety. Looking back on this summer, the band members view it as a halcyon time. The beginning of the end…
At the end of their sojourn at Wylding Hall, the group recorded a ‘plein air’ album demo in the garden – with the expectation that studio sessions would follow to polish their work before the album was released. This never happened.
I can’t tell you why, as it would absolutely spoil the novel for you. Suffice it to say that Wylding Hall holds the secret of the mystery.
I am generally not a fan of books with supernatural overtones, but Wylding Hall proves to be an exception. I am not so arrogant that I will not acknowledge that there are some things that just defy explanation. Wylding Hall was an atmospheric story that incorporated strong characterization. This is the first novel I have read by Elizabeth Hand, but it will not be the last.