Friday, July 24, 2015

A Chill(ing) Book for a Hot Summer Night

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand. Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. 2015.

A poem written by English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion prefaces this suspenseful and atmospheric story and foreshadows the dark events to come:

Thrice toss these Oaken ashes in the ayre,
Thrice sit thou mute in this inchanted chayre …

Go burn these poys’nous weedes in yon blew fire,
These Screedh-owles fethers, and this prickling bryer,
This Cypresse gathered at a dead man’s grave …

Then come you fayries, dance with me a round,
Melt her hard heart with your melodious sound …

In the early 1970s, a British record producer and manager of an up-and-coming acid folk band,  leases Wylding Hall, a large and very old country house in Hampshire, England, for the summer. The band’s popularity is just starting to take off and their manager hopes to give the band the time and space, in a remote area, to write new material and rehearse for their next album.  The young musicians are eager to move in and work on their music.

Much of the house, sections of which date back to Tudor and  Norman times, is unused and in ruins. The band occupies a newer, remodeled section and almost from the first, notice that things are not quite right.  An old caretaker warns them to stay away from the “Downs” after dark  and not to wander around in the nearby woods. A psychic visitor suddenly becomes frighteningly ill.  Lead singer and songwriter, Leslie Stansall, feels like an intruder and bassist Ashton Moorehouse wonders about a well-tuned piano in the unused house. In one of the story’s more chilling incidents, he finds a small, foul smelling room filled with dead birds. Singer/songwriter and lead guitarist Julian Blake discovers a library and becomes obsessed with some of its mysterious manuscripts.  While exploring the house, a visiting journalist also discovers the library--and finds it contains more than just some esoteric books. Amazingly, few of these disturbing  experiences are shared with the group, but for the reader, who knows what each character knows, the suspense and horror grows.

After a bizarre incident at a local pub, Julian unexpectedly vanishes. First days, then weeks go by without any sign of him. The band member search for him and even contact the local police, who are less than helpful. The stress of their missing friend,  coupled with mysterious happenings in the house, impacts the group's social dynamic. It becomes difficult for them to write and rehearse. Soon, everyone takes off with little to show for their efforts and diminished prospects for the future.

Twenty years after the event (when this short novel actually begins), an American filmmaker  interviews the band members and other witnesses in preparation for a documentary about the events of that long ago summer. Will she uncover the truth about Julian’s disappearance?

Author Elizabeth Hand’s creative use of the interviews  as a vehicle to tell the story enables the reader to see the story from many different perspectives. The interviews are intimate, personal,  sometimes painful, and reveal the characters’ young and  hopeful selves and as the middle-age adults they became. How the characters’ interact with each other, respond to their environment,  and, later, discuss their impressions and recollections of that summer in 1971, is probably one of the most compelling aspects of this story. The interviews make it clear how significant this summer was for each.

Enjoy this story for its chilling suspense, but stay for the author’s beautiful and evocative writing which invokes a strong sense of time and place. Hand writes knowledgeably of the folk music scene in England during the 1970s and tantalizes the reader’s imagination (and fears) by weaving in old traditions, superstitions, and haunting songs from British folklore.

References to drugs and sex, while not explicit, are part of the “times” and  make this hard-to- put down story appropriate for mature teens and adults. Hand is an award-winning author and critic. Visit her website and Open Road Media, Inc. to learn more about her.

Review based on e-galley from Netgalley.

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