Review: Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

One for the music fans amongst you: you may know Hand’s work from the Cass Neary stories (if you don’t know them yet, waste no time diving into Generation Loss and then jump into Available Dark and Hard Light). While Cass brings a punk sensibility to the rebel photographer’s life, this novella explores the harder edge of alternative folk music in the sixties. Wylding Hall is of course the place where the mystery happens and the narrative unfolds like one of those Behind the Music docos.

Blurb:

After the tragic and mysterious death of one of their founding members, the young musicians in a British acid-folk band hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with its own dark secrets. There they record the classic album that will make their reputation but at a terrifying cost, when Julian Blake, their lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen again. Now, years later, each of the surviving musicians, their friends and lovers (including a psychic, a photographer, and the band s manager) meets with a young documentary filmmaker to tell his or her own version of what happened during that summer but whose story is the true one? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

Like all of Hand’s books, it cracks right along with indelible images, told through the different voices of the band members and the others who become entwined in the tale. The mystery of what has really happened to Julian deepens as the ‘eye witnesses’ of course don’t agree — and don’t see the same things. There’s a familiarity with the music world that will satisfy fans (showing Hand’s encyclopedic knowledge of the field with such touchstones as Brian Jones’ The Pipes of Pan in Joujouka), a touch of the supernatural (or is there?) and a lot of emotions boiling under the surface of a tight-knit group, as you would expect. All of which makes for great fun.

Some snippets:

On folk songs: ‘It’s a kind of time machine, really, the way you can trace a song from whoever’s singing it now back through the years—Dylan or Johnny Cash, Joanna Newsom or Vashti Bunyan—on through all those nameless folk who kept it alive a thousand years ago’

‘He reminded me of Syd Barrett. Oh god, I thought, another fucking acid casualty.’

“Burna thyn haer yn flamme Tiss wrennas fedyr and thyn hatte blod.”

‘As soon as he opened his mouth and began to sing, the room fell quiet. Not just quiet: dead silent. I’ve never seen anything like it. Like a freeze-frame in a movie. Nobody spoke, nobody moved. Nobody breathed. I know I didn’t, not for half a minute. It sounded as though he were whispering the song into your ear.’

‘Truth is, often Lesley got the fuzzy end of the lollypop. Didn’t get enough credit for the songs she wrote or the arrangements she came up with, didn’t get credit for how much of our live performances she carried.’

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