A Folk Rock Frightener in England
Elizabeth Hand, a prize-winning New York-born author who lives in Maine, has produced one of the best English mystery tales for many a day. “It began as a riff on Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca,” she has said elsewhere, and the riff developed into a mesmerizing original composition with, as it happens, a strong musical theme.
The story is pieced together, rockumentary style, out of retrospective accounts from former members, followers, and associates of a seminal Seventies folk-rock band, Windhollow Faire, creators of a single classic album, Wylding Hall, recorded at the house of the same name, “a beautiful old wreck of a stately home in the English countryside,” during one enchanted – and ultimately deadly – summer. “Inexplicable and terrible – things are always good for the music business,” as onetime manager Tom Haring says of what transpires. A legend is born – or reborn, as links to earlier English myths reveal.
In less assured, well, hands, Wylding Hall could taste stale: the cursed rock band; the spooky English country house – you can see the risk of cliché. But the author brings it off superbly. Partly it’s the terrific sense of time and place; partly the lovingly detailed authenticity of early Seventies UK pop culture; partly the deft division of the narrative into distinct voices, all (but one) of them speaking faithfully rendered Britspeak. Retrospective references to Richard Branson and Jimmy Page, The Wicker Man and Withnail and I, only enrich the flavour.
“That was a golden summer, and we had the Summer King,” says Tom Haring. “And we all know what happens to the Summer King.” What does happen to Julian Blake, singer/songwriter and lead guitar (and perhaps, murderer?), is never explicitly spelled out, but alluded to subtly enough to preserve the underlying enigma. I was actually unsettled to find that there was a real rock band (the Waterstons) and album (Bright Phoebus) behind Windhollow Faire and Wylding Hall, until I listened to the original and confirmed that it was nothing like as ghostly as the imagined version.
The story gets that far under your skin. And I hope someone films it. It could be superb on screen, as it already is on the page. Absolutely recommended.
Quotes from Wylding Hall
“He wanted the album itself to be a kind of spell. An enchantment. You’d listen to it, and without knowing it, you’d be changed. ‘Ensorcelled’.”
“Julian’s room had a proper desk looking out a window, with a beautiful view of the Downs to the west. That’s where he wrote ‘Windhover Morn’ – you can see the photograph on the gatefold sleeve of his desk, with his notebook and that mess of music sheets and pens and pencils and his guitar on the bed.”
“Wylding Hall was a bad scene. Or no, scratch that. ‘Bad’ isn’t the right word. We’re not talking good and evil, Christian morality, sort of thing. Things went much deeper than that. There was a sense of wrongness, of things being out of balance.”