By Elizabeth Hand; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
A stately but rundown country house, a folk band on the cusp of celebrity, a record that is popular, then wanes and then becomes a cult favorite are all elements of this supernatural mystery.
Told through a series of interviews supposedly for a documentary about the band and its final album, “Wylding Hall,” the story offers shifting points of view about the band, its music and the disappearance of lead singer and songwriter Julian Blake just 24 hours after the album was recorded outside the house. (Think DAISY JONES AND THE SIX.)
When burnout and a demanding schedule threaten to sap group’s creativity, Tom Haring, manager/producer for Windhollow Faire, decides they should take a break and spend the summer in the country.
“All I can say is that, at the time, spending three months at a beautiful old wreck of a stately home in the English countryside seemed like a good idea,” Tom tells the interviewers.
And the idea works. Lead singer and songwriter Julian Blake writes one great song after another. The band is closely in tune with each other during their daily rehearsals.
Brilliant and creative, Julian was “almost unearthly; he was so handsome . . . spooky beautiful,” according to drummer Jonathan Redheim. At the same time, Julian was acutely shy in a way that came across as arrogant, intellectually bright but socially and emotionally innocent. He didn’t like to be touched. Altogether, he was “a publicist’s nightmare.”
When Julian isn’t writing songs or rehearsing with the band, he’s wandering over the grounds through the forest and downs and into the hills. The estate caretaker, Silas Thomas, is disapproving. He tells one of the band members to stay away from the woods and the barrow, but never explains why.
Julian has also discovered an ancient library in the house and is becoming deeply immersed in arcane books and obsessed with magic and perspectives on time.
To Will Fogerty, the band’s musicologist, Julian’s songs are beginning to sound like spells. When members of the group go down to the local pub to play for spare change, an odd waif-like girl dressed in white appears. Julian invites her to join them, although the others feel uncomfortable. The other band members find it strange that Julian is so welcoming to a stranger.
The image of that girl appears in photos that the caretaker’s grandson, Billy Thomas, took during the recording session. With flat black eyes and a malevolent expression, the girl speeds supernaturally fast from the back of the group to just behind Julian in the series of photos that Bill shot.
No one present at the recording remembers seeing her.
The next day, Julian is gone leaving behind his guitar, his songs and notes.
The notoriety of Julian’s disappearance carries the album up the charts. Without Julian, though, Windhollow Faire as a musical group is over. With the passing of the years and the arrival of the internet, the mystery and the music goes viral.
Author Elizabeth Hand has modernized a ghost story in an eery way. Using the idea of rotating interviews for a documentary is an unusual and realistic way to present the story. The tale unfolds with depth, dimension and well-controlled pacing. The effect is modern and immediate.
The Author: Elizabeth Hand (1957 – )
An American writer who divides her time between coastal Maine and Camden Town, London, Elizabeth Hand published her first story in 1988 and her first novel, WINTERLONG in 1990. With Paul Witcover, she created and wrote DC Comics’ 1990s cult series, Anima.
Her work covers a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, psychological thrillers and crime novels. She also writes movie and television spin-offs, including Star Wars tie-in novels and novelizations of films such as “The X-Files” and “12 Monkeys.” Her books include GENERATION LOSS.
Artists, particularly those on the fringe, and the effects of climate change are frequent themes in her work.
She is a reviewer and critic for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Review, Salon, and Village Voice, among others. Additionally, she is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts Program in creative writing.
Her work has received many Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy and Nebula Awards among other honors. Several of her books have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books.
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