Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

by Brandon Bernstein (@MantisShrimp)

A quick search of “horror and music” brings up articles on the importance of a suspenseful soundtrack to a horror movie’s tense atmosphere and suggestions of spooky Spotify playlists for Halloween (or, if you’re like many members of the HOWL Society, all year round). But suppose you’re less interested in music for horror and more interested in horror rooted in music? Say you want to read about the eeriest song since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil? Since Orpheus plucked his lyre despite the Thracian Maenads ripping him to shreds?

Well then, reader, you’re in luck. The HOWL Society has just the right note in mind for you. Grab your record player, dust off an old vinyl, and settle in for a listen to everyone’s favorite haunted album: Wylding Hall.

Behind the Pen

Though she’s best known for her science fiction and dark fantasy work (including her award-winning classic, Waking the Moon), Elizabeth Hand is no stranger to horror. Her first-ever published work was “Prince of Flowers” in a 1988 edition of Twilight Zone Magazine. She won back-to-back International Horror Guild Awards for her stories “Cleopatra Brimstone” (2001) and “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” (2002). In 2007, she tackled the canon of Universal Classic Monsters with her reinterpretation of The Bride of Frankenstein

Though raised in Yonkers, New York, Elizabeth now splits her time between coastal Maine (quite unusual for horror authors) and Camden Town, London. Perhaps it was her time there that inspired her to tell the tale of a doomed British acid folk band…

A No-Spoiler Summary

Through a series of interviews for some unnamed documentary, the members of acid-folk band Windhollow Faire recount the story of the summer that solidified their infamy. The summer they decided to record their second album at the titular Wylding Hall, a secluded mansion in the English countryside. The summer their lead singer, prodigal wunderkid Julian Blake, mysteriously disappeared. Now, three decades later, the surviving band members, their manager, and a few other hangers-on finally share the secrets of those gilded days and their dark shadow. And the true story of Wylding Hall is anything but natural.

Voices From Within

First and foremost—this was a breezy read. Several HOWL Society members couldn’t resist reading ahead of schedule and,to the detriment of our enjoyment, our piecemeal approach to book club discussions (a third of the book by Monday, a third of the book by Wednesday, a third of the book by Friday) slowed down the flow. This novella is meant to be consumed in a sitting, not spread over a week (“the shortness is what moves the story” one HOWLer noted).

The book begins with a dramatis personae of characters, and our readers were grateful for it. The novella’s style eschews description in favor of pure monologuing (VH1 Behind the Music-style) as all its characters slowly dole out information to tell the horrific tale of Windhollow Faire. We noticed immediately that few of these characters have distinct enough voices to stand out from each other. Other than the broadest differences like “the American one” (Lesley) or “the gay one” (Jon). One of our distinguished members summed it up best: “I’ll be like ‘who am I listening to’ and Jon will be like ‘and I was just being gay, but secretly’ and I’ll be like ‘ah alright.’

We pored over hints and clues Hand-sprinkled throughout the book’s early chapters to realize [MILD SPOILER ALERT] the story was preparing us less for the spectral and more for the fae (though one reader kept throwing around some persuasive evidence that this was actually a mermaid tale). Some of us delighted in every teasing butterfly and wren reference (wrenference?); others found the slow-burn atmosphere disappointing, fearing the book may not live up to its creepy promise. Your mileage may vary regarding how effective the scares, but there was one image our readers unanimously agreed gave them nightmares. 

Well before the horrific scene in question, however, someone pointed out an over-reliance on the trope of constantly foreshadowing the bad things to come (almost as if to reassure readers this was, indeed, a horror novel). Hand’s repeated usage of such foreshadowing for so long both made it difficult to take her chapters more seriously than Goosebumps AND built up significant expectations for what exactly would happen. As we entered the final third of the book and the much-ballyhooed event still hadn’t occurred, one reader joked that we wouldn’t get any answers until the next season of Firefly. This frivolity even led to a brief game of sharing our own ridiculous allusions, though none of us could top this gem: “Thanksgiving morning was beautiful, filled with the joy of playing children and grown ups gathered round the television. But the turkey had other plans.”

Speaking of other plans, some of the best moments of discussion occurred when HOWLers attempted to predict where Hand may be leading us. One theory proffered that Julian (the stunningly handsome lead singer to whom all the dreadful foreshadowed things happened) was actually just the friends everyone made along the way. Which meant Julian never existed. Which meant Wylding Hall was on track to become either Shutter Island or Greendale Community College Asylum. At which point our discussion devolved into a Dean Pelton fan club. Chaos in that place, just chaos…

Welcome to the Blurbs: HOWL Society Members’ Reviews In Their Own Words

  • Wylding Hall starts as a slow burn haunted house tale and from there, Elizabeth Hand expertly weaves in folklore and myth. I have gone down a folklore and myth rabbit hole now and I don’t plan on surfacing for air any time soon!”
    ~Cheese Dance

  • Wylding Hall is not terrible, not great, but decent and mildly entertaining.”

  • “Hand’s pick plucks the perfect malignant melodies that could conceivably curse a ‘haunted album recording.’ She augments her discordant themes through behind-the-scenes interviews with musicians who detail the band’s ill-fated fortunes and folklorish frights. Try pairing the audiobook with a soundscape of instrumental psychedelic folk.”
    ~Lord Mordi

  • “This atmospheric, suspenseful tale is a journey worth taking, even if its final destination is underwhelming.”

  • “Is it just the acid, or is something weird going on in this house? Wylding Hall is a novella that guides you through a melodramatic retelling of a summer spent in a decrepit English manor that ended in tragedy.”

  • “Reading Wylding Hall is like eating a family sized bag of potato chips all to yourself. There’s some flavour, but not a ton of substance. By the end of it you’re full, but not the same way as if you had taken the time to make yourself a meal.”
    ~Chris O’Halloran

  • “Interesting, creepy, unique take on more traditional ‘folk horror’ material. I didn’t love every narrative decision but I sure enjoyed the ride.”

  • “While I did enjoy the atmosphere Hand offered, it wasn’t enough to make me love her novella. Some creepy images conjured in my mind, but in the end, there was a lack of tension. The distant, documentary-style interview of the band mates decades later also pulled me out of the story.”

  • Wylding Hall is a different kind of haunted house tale, told in a compelling interview format between members of a fictional folk band. I would recommend this to readers of mythology and folklore as well as rock and roll fans, but don’t expect traditional horror tropes in this story. My only wish was that the book had been longer!”

  • “The retelling of a horrible event masqueraded as a haunting fever dream. Unnerving narration of incidents that will burrow in your mind and leave you in a surreal state, speculating long after you have put the book down.”

  • “Atmospheric, spooky, and a slow burn that’s almost like teasing. That One Scene will stick with me for a while and overcomes some of the slower spots.”

  • “Rockin’ and creepy.”

In Conclusion

For fans of folklore and mythology, Wylding Hall is a must-read. It’s by no means a perfect novella, but like the live recording of its ethereal namesake album, it possesses an irresistible charm that makes the final product worth your time. 

And while you don’t actually have to wait quite as long for a payoff, Hand’s prose is still best enjoyed when imagined as a sequel to the cult classic sci-fi western Firefly. We also recommend the Wylding Hall drinking game: every time Jon reminds you he’s gay, take a drink (preferably of absinthe). 

HOWLS Score: Growl! (3/5)