Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.

A boy called Sue and a boy called Yellow

We’ll start with Exhibit A:

My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue.”
“A Boy Named Sue”, written by Shel Silverstein, sung by Johnny Cash

And here’s Exhibit B:

Everyone considered him the coward of the county.
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong.
His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow,
But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.
“Coward of the County”, written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, performed by Kenny Rogers

Now, what’s going through your mind as you read these lyrics? If you know the songs at all, it’s the stories they go on to tell. The boy Sue is forced to grow up “quick and mean” because of his name, and with a sore-headed grudge against the man who gave it to him; but when he finally meets up with that man… And Tommy, or “Yellow” as everyone calls him (the colourblind fools), promises his dying daddy to always walk away from trouble if he can; but then one day the Gatlin boys catch his girl Becky on her own…

“A Boy Named Sue” came out in 1969, “Coward of the County” in 1979, but both were played pretty frequently on Radio 2 in the early 80s (when I used to listen to it before walking to school). Or at least they seemed to be played pretty frequently. Probably, they were played just as often as any other songs at the time, it’s just these two went on playing in my head. I thought about those songs. Particularly that line from “Coward of the County”:

They took turns at Becky…. n’ there were three of them!

They took turns turns at Becky? God, what did that mean? It didn’t mean — surely — not on Radio 2?!? I would have been about 8 or 9 at the time; I knew what it meant, but I didn’t want to know what it meant. Because of that line, whenever “Coward of the County” came on, I couldn’t help but listen. First I had to hear the line, how awful it was, then hear the story to the end, to try and get rid of the awfulness. I still thought Tommy finally overcoming his pacifist scruples to slug the Gatlin boys was a little late for poor Becky, but at least it was some resolution. It at least seemed a little bit heroic on his part. (If also un-PC. Nowadays, Becky would lay hold of a pitchfork and do those Gatlins in the goolies. And deservedly so.)

But the point is the song had a pretty powerful effect on me. And the reason for its effect is that it was telling a story. Stories just have a primal power, and stories in songs are among the most compressed examples of storytelling. The only types of stories which are more compressed that I can think of are jokes and anecdotes. And, at least as far as jokes and songs are concerned, compressing the story into a shorter space (fewer words) seems to increase its punching power accordingly. (Anecdotes less so. But the very word “anecdote” always reminds me of Steve Martin’s outburst to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, having listened to him drawling on pointlessly for hours: “You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have NONE of that. … And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea — have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!” (See imdb for the full quote.) It’s the frustration he feels that proves the power of anecdotes, in this instance through their lack of story.)

There’s something about a song which contains even a hint of a story that compels you to listen. I’ve heard “Coward of the County” countless times, but if I hear it, I still have to listen. Same goes for “A Boy Named Sue”, and the same goes for any number of others. Even ones I don’t particularly like as music. As in, “The Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.” Argh! Endless fiddling! But it’s got a story. Or “The bravest animals in the land are Captain Beaky and his band…” Funny the first time, just slightly irritating the tenth — but still, you can’t help but listen.

And that’s the point. Once the story starts, you can’t help being drawn in. You have to listen all the way to the end. Even if you know what’s going to happen. Especially if you know what’s going to happen. There’s some weird combination of the way the music forces the story to progress at a steady, even pace, and how you, as listener, just need to hear those events related one more time, in the same order, in the same manner, with the same outcome.

I suppose it comes down to suspense. Suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock was always fond of pointing out, is not about wondering what’s going to happen next, but knowing what’s going to happen next and being forced to wait to have it confirmed. You see a mad axeman hiding down an alley and the hero’s disposable sidekick walking towards him. You know what’s going to happen, so why watch? But you have to. Every slow-mo step. And it’s the same with songs. You know Johnny’s going to out-fiddle the Devil, but each time you’ve got to listen.

There’s a dark side to all this. Story songs which aren’t proper stories. Those are the worst. They have enough of a story to make you listen, but don’t deliver the goods. All too often the denouement of the story is summed up in one line, and it’s just not clear enough, or it’s too compressed (after all, it’s either fit the end of the story into one line or add a whole extra verse, and we’ve only got three minutes of radio time). This is particularly frustrating if you’re an 8 or 9-year old boy who can’t be sure that what the adults are implying is what he thinks they’re implying. I could never quite be sure why “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge“; it all sounded rather mysterious and grownup, but also, I suspected, a bit groundless. And ZZ Top’s “Master of Sparks“? I still don’t know what happens in that song! Just what is the “Master of Sparks”? A rocket? A plane? Does the narrator die? Then how come he’s singing? Just play the damn guitar, Billy Gibbons, and I’ll forgive you anything!

Anyway. The power of stories in songs isn’t just something I felt when I was 8 or 9. I still can’t hear the start of Fairport Convention’s “Matty Groves” without stopping to listen to the whole thing. And it’s over eight minutes long! And I already know what happens!

(Fist in mouth.) Argh!