Every year I cover an appropriate international mystery for Halloween. For example, last year I talked about ghosts of Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier this month I talked about the ghost ship the Baltimore, which was found with only a single survivor, a woman, who soon vanished from Nova Scotia and was never seen again. This year I want to review a novel, Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. The novel is a ghost story set in a remote English country house in the 1960s. The characters are primarily members of an English folk band, who came of age in the era of Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when the folk rock movement was a pop culture force in Great Britain. Even though the pop culture of this period will be familiar to most Western readers, the specifically British context will be alien to most Americans and Canadians. The story begins after a terrible tragedy, which leads the band manager to isolate the band in an old country-house, not only to heal the group’s members but also to create a new album.
The work is inspired by the genre of pop music band histories that focus on juxtaposing the differing voices of band members. Hand, an American, has an amazing ear for dialogue. I think that dialogue is always tricky for a writer, as the smallest error in tone or wording can be jarring. At the same time, it is perhaps the best tool for characterization, and this is how Hand employs it. Dialogue propels the novel, so that the reader is soon swept into the jealousies, loves, and secrets of a British band. All ghost stories are dominated by the past. In Hand’s novel, however, the past at times seems distant and undefined. In truth the book is dominated by the 1960s in one summer in the life of a band. It differs from the stories of M.R. James and many other English authors of ghost stories because the past doesn’t seem to overwhelm the present. Even though the past intrudes, this novel is truly the story of the band itself.
As my favorite author, M.R. James, also said, there is very little that a ghost can actually do. Effective ghost
stories depend on creating a sense of place and moment, then gradually introducing a sense of disquiet. This is certainly Hand’s approach to the book. In this case, it’s not only the house that is haunted, but also the countryside around it. One of the themes of the book is the experience of youth, and this contrasted with the much older environment that the band members come to inhabit. In this case one character dabbles in the occult, which he has learned not only from the books he finds in old libraries, but also from the old ballads that he sings. Despite his power as an artist, he doesn’t truly understand the meaning or danger of this material. This is all very reminiscent of M.R. James’ characters, who are often oblivious to the deeper meaning of the images and items that they encounter, whether it be an old whistle on a seashore, or a peculiar set of binoculars. While the biography of a folk-rock band might seem an unlikely mashup with a ghost story, the result is an evocative page-turner. The juxtaposition of Hand’s erudition, with the universal aspects the Band life, make this a deceptively deep work.
In an interview in her collection Fire, Hand says that she is not a musician. Nonetheless, she certainly writes authoritatively about the folk music scene. The book is astoundingly well researched and the references to folk songs were so detailed that they left me wondering what was real and what was not? If the book inspires you to listen more English folk music you might want to hear the haunting harmonies of the Agincourt Carol by Maddy Prior and June Tabor. The song itself dates to the early 15th century, but that may be recent compared to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which was mentioned briefly by one of the characters in the story. You can watch a wonderful, brief documentary about it on Youtube. What’s remarkable is the truly great age of the antlers that are used in the ritual. You can also view another example of the dance/parade here. Finally, there is a recent interpretation of the song by Stick in the Wheel. If you want something more contemporary, you might try listening to the music of Fairport Convention itself. These might put you in the right mood to read this elegiac, beautiful and gripping novel.
Elizabeth Hand has a particular knack for describing nature. It is not giving anything away to say that the single motif that dominates the book is birds -in particular song birds, and the wren- and it’s fitting that this is a a theme from the natural world. She captures the peculiar beauty of the English countryside in summertime, which she compares to this golden moment in the young lives of these performers. In a sense, this book reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, in that evokes the experience of youth, and the nostalgia that these memories can throw over an entire lifetime. The images, characters and the setting will linger with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.
If you are an Anglophile who wants to put on the kettle, listen to the rain, and spend an afternoon reading a spooky book, you might also want to buy Siân Evan’s Ghosts: Mysterious Tales from the National Trust. The work itself is published by Britain’s National Trust, a conservation organization that preserves historic buildings and landscapes. This is not a text-heavy work. The introduction is only two and a half pages in length. Each historical location (of approximately 72) is listed in alphabetical order with its accompanying ghostly tale in about a page of text. The main focus of the book is truly not the stories but rather the evocative black and white photos that accompany each entry. The work will draw people who are interested in English architecture and history, as much as those who love ghost stories. The book is also a good complement to Wylding Hall, as that book’s stately home could easily have merited an entry in Evan’s work.
Even though it does not deal with ghost stories, I also recommend the wonderful book No Voice from the Hall, which tells the story of how a man who loved Britain’s stately homes used to explore these abandoned buildings, often just before these edifices were torn down. Today Youtube is filled with videos of urban explorers entering abandoned hotels, shopping malls, and apartments without permission. John Harris’s work is literary counterpart, which is similar to Hand’s novel in that the author captures the feeling of being young, while surrounded by the very old.
If you want to find some brief videos about British ghosts, Chris Halton has a series of Youtube programs that focus on supposedly haunted locations. Some of the videos focus more on old manors and architecture than the supernatural, but there is usually a ghost somewhere in the story. The good news is that if you like one video, there are many more on his Youtube channel. You might want to start with this video: “A WALK THROUGH A GHOSTLY HISTORY – A day and night visit to Baconsthorpe Castle.”
As a fan of graphic novels, I also have to mention Neil Gaiman’s collaboration with Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone and Dave Stewart, titled A Study in Emerald, which certainly fits well into the theme of the British supernatural. The book reads as a short story, and represents a mashup of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories with the bizarre world of H.P. Lovecraft. The story begins conventionally enough, but soon reaches a point (spoiler alert) at which you suddenly realized that you’ve left the mystery genre behind. I think that for readers unfamiliar with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the story might be so strange as to to be confusing. But if you have read Lovecraft’s short stories, you’ll likely enjoy this beautifully illustrated graphic novel. I admired (major spoiler alert) the sheer courage that it took to depict Queen Victoria in this manner. It also alludes to a new reason for the British military failures in Afghanistan in the 19th century, which might be difficult to find in conventional history texts.
Do you want to read another book review of another work that involves the supernatural? Read my review of Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach. Or you can read my own book, Dangerous Spirits, about an evil spirit called the Windigo in the Indigenous beliefs of Algonquian peoples. The book is available in both the United States and Canada. If you do buy it, whether you love it or hate it, I’d appreciate a review on Amazon or GoodReads. Personally, my favorite review on Goodreads was the negative one by Redri9hthand, who has a wicked sense of humor.
Lastly, if you want to read more work by Elizabeth Hand, I recommend the eclectic, short collection Fire. The book begins with two short stories that both deal with the theme of natural disaster. My favorite is “The Saffron Gatherers,” which draws an unexpected line between the ancient civilization of Santorini and modern California, in a beautifully descriptive and unexpected story. As with all of Hand’s work, this story has a knack for capturing the precise details that evoke a place. I equally enjoyed Hand’s own description of her life becoming a writer in chapter three, and the other short stories in the collection. Highly recommended.
Happy Halloween everyone, and if you are taking out children for trick or treating on Halloween, please remember to give them reflectors and glow sticks.
Shawn Smallman, 2018