I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth Hand’s fiction for a long time. Waking the Moon, which seems to be a lot of people’s Elizabeth Hand gateway drug (at least, among readers around my age), came out when I was in college. Smith wasn’t much like the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine (it was a bit like Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin; I am aware that Blackstock is more directly based on Carleton), but I was from Washington D.C. and had been to Catholic University a few times. The setting felt familiar, plus I was beginning a fascination with ancient goddesses that would continue up to the present day. So I read all of Hand’s work that I could, especially including Black Light, with its rhapsodic Dionysian apostrophes and references to Euripides’ Bacchae and the Orphic Mysteries.
Wylding Hall, to me, bears a few resemblances to Black Light, though it is very much its own thing. Mainly because both feature an enormous house in which a great deal of the action takes place, a house that seems much larger than it has any reason to be, with mysterious rooms and even more mysterious people, and characters whose chemically altered state of mind might explain all the weirdness except that you know it doesn’t, because this is not the kind of story where you wonder whether there’s anything supernatural going on. Some of the characters might; you, the reader, do not. Despite this, when a revelation occurs near the end of the book concerning a certain photograph, the effect is jolting.
One of the things that Hand is very good at is atmosphere. Whether in her fantasy and science fiction or, more recently, in her Cass Neary crime novels, she opens windows into vivid worlds bright with color and terror in equal measure. I’d love to visit Wylding Hall, would love even more for that visit to be with a band that achieves the kind of synergy Windhollow Faire does, with an optimistic manager footing the bill. I tell you what: the best of their experience was what I always hoped playing in a band would be like, and every so often, it was. Though I also know that Wylding Hall would creep me right the hell out. I get creeped out in my own house, a thoroughly boring and poorly constructed split level dating only to the 1990s; one look in that closet full of dead birds and I’d be looking on AirBnB. And yet.
And yet, the story works so well for me that I want to go see the place anyway. While nothing about the plot of Wylding Hall particularly surprised me–and it’s a short novel, though quite a bit happens in it–Hand so successfully establishes an atmosphere of wild creativity and equally unchained creepiness that particular moments are as effectively startling as they need to be to sustain the rest. Though I was left with some lingering curiosity about the locals, what they know, and how laconic they are about the danger the members of Windhollow Faire are putting themselves in. There was a definite shade of The Wicker Man about them; if Christopher Lee had shown up, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. Also much like The Wicker Man, there’s a sense of inevitability about the proceedings, as though the events of the novel were a foregone conclusion as soon as the musicians and Wylding Hall encountered one another. There’s a longstanding cultural trope of people, especially musicians, encountering uncanny beings at crossroads: gods, fairies, or devils. Perhaps Windhollow Faire was doomed all along.