One more book as Halloween comes closer – and again an old review I was paid all of four bucks for last year.
American Elizabeth Hand has had a long and honored career as a writer of fantastic fiction, with a long list of titles and a good number of prizes including the James Tiptree Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. Like many hard-working authors, her bibliography also includes novelizations and tie-ins with popular franchises such as X-Files and Star wars; but it is in his original works that the spark of originality and wonder are found that justify the success, the positive reviews and the awards.
Wylding Hall, published in 2015, is a novella, which nevertheless captures in less than 150 pages more ideas, surprises and twists than many novels six times more massive.
Although the author is American, a story can be seen as part of the current renaissance of British folk horror, and may recall December by Phil Rickman. Like in that book, in “Wylding Hall” we have a band, the Windhollow Faire (very similar to Fairport Convention) that after the traumatic death of their singer (echoes of Sandy Denny from Fairport) hide away in an old house in the English countryside to record a new album, with a new front man. The album, entitled “Wylding Hall” is an epochal success, and becomes a real cult item for the public. It is also marked by a mystery: the disappearance, during the recording, of the band leader. That literally fades away, as if engulfed by Wylding Hall.
What Elizabeth Hand offers us, when things happen, is a sort of dossier, a collection of interviews with the surviving members of the Windhollow Faire. A very commercial affair, set up by the label to celebrate the anniversary of the release of the album. But in the allegedly unreliable memories of the musicians – all of them, during that summer at Wyling Hall, they were mostly drunk or drugged – lie disturbing presences, beginning with a woman in white who appears only in the band’s photographs, and nobody remembers to have ever seen.
Wylding Hall is a direct descendant of Hill House, it is a malevolent place whose internal geography seems to change to trap the unfortunate and unconscious members of the band and their groupies. But the building also has debts with the works of John Crawley and Robert Holdstock, because of the way the walls, the foundations and the corridors seem intertwined with the history of the territory.
Hand builds her story with an admirable economy, and respecting the ancient rule of M.R. James, so there must be a glimmer through which reason can explain what appears to be inexplicable. As long as, James argued, that glimmer is so small that it is practically useless.
“Wylding Hall”, with its references to the English countryside, traditions and popular superstitions, with the unreliability of its narrators, with the logic that at every step fights against the supernatural, could be “just” a psychological thriller. But when the author lifts the last veil, even that tiny crack of James closes hermetically, and the supernatural triumphs, causing a long chill along the back of the reader.