Folk music in the US is viewed as an innocent, pastoral indulgence with roots in rural life. Its lilt between twittering energy and melancholy not for everyone, there was, however, a time when it reached the heights of popularity—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, Carly Simon, and others big names of the 60s and 70s counter-culture movement. In England, however, folk music has added dimensions. Celtic history forever lingering in the background, the music can likewise have pagan undertones—the spirits of forest and meadow tucked into the melodies and lyrics. Bringing together a folk band and the counter-culture movement in England in the early 70s, Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015, Open Road Media) is not only a beautifully written piece of nostalgia, but also a story about the essences of an age past that still haunt the bucolic reaches of England’s countryside.
Flower power with dark undercurrents, Wylding Hall is written in documentary format. Akin to VH1’s Storyteller series, the novel steadily rotates through the recollections of the members of Windhollow Faire and the making of their smash hit album Wylding Hall. Some just teenagers when they joined the band, one magical summer in the deep countryside of England at a worn down manor changes their lives forever. Freedom, music, poetry, and a little hashish in the air, the light and joy of creation is offset by the shadows of Wylding Hall. Amidst the fun, unexplainable events offset what could be the greatest summer of their lives.
Hand writing the band members’ recollections from a contemporary view, she keeps things loosely in perspective by pointing out the differences in lifestyle a half-century of technology has brought about as well as several decades of age, maturity, and hindsight. Giving the novel a strong nostalgic feel, the social atmosphere and feel of the 60s and 70s counter-culture comes into fuller light. The novel heavily researched, Windhollow Faire is a fictional band, but the surrounding cultural references are not. The reader need not know John Bonham, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Todd Rundgren, The Wicker Man (the original, not the Nicholas Cage remake), The Pipes of Pan in Joujouka or the other little tidbits tucked into the narrative to appreciate the story, but doing so certainly provides that little cherry on top and gives the novel its full historical weight and pull.
Roughly three years since Hand’s last novel and four since her last short story, Wylding Hall has been a little while coming. But nothing has been lost. The prose is still finely crafted, there is still a soft touch with emotional undercurrents, Hand fully humanizes her characters, and of course, that little pinch of the fantastic to spice up the story is still added. The pagan elements utilized for their creepy and mythopoeic presence more than outright horror, the resulting story is Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads of British folk. Heaven can be touched, but you must pay the dark spirits of nature, not the devil.
Given the overall lack of genre attention (save the World Fantasy Award), the thought has crossed my mind that Hand’s talents are wasted on mainstream fans of science fiction and fantasy. It’s therefore it’s nice to see Open Road is not overtly advertizing the novel as genre, perhaps in the hopes more literary readers will take a look—and that look comes highly recommended.