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.


Obsession by Ramsey Campbell

Obsession_photoI first read Obsession in the late 1980s, as part of my initial burst of Ramsey Campbell-consumption (not literal — I didn’t eat him), when I worked through a local bookshop’s stock of his titles, including those with the horrible photo covers he was blessed with at the time. (Obsession, in fact, had the worst — a woman’s clenched but impeccably-manicured hands covered in what seemed to be soap suds, or perhaps dried potato juice. The book has yet to gain the cover it deserves, I think.)

Obsession was published in 1985, and re-reading it, I was struck by how it in part recalls another book from the same time, King’s IT (1986). Both are about a group of kids from the late 1950s, and a past that comes back to get them in the 1980s. Rather than alternating between the present and the past as King does, Campbell’s novel opens in 1958, then makes a one-way leap to the present. There’s no element of nostalgia, or that whole ‘wonderful world of being a kid’ thing, as with King’s book. Obsession is tightly plotted psychological, perhaps-supernatural, thriller. (It’s a book that proves Campbell is as much a page-turner as a wordsmith.) But the major difference between the two books is their version of evil that the protagonists face.

In 1958, we learn how each of a group of four kids — Peter, Steve, Jimmy and (as with IT, a single girl) Robin — have one thing in their lives they want to be rid of. With Peter, it’s his nagging, controlling grandmother, recently moved in with the family and making everyone’s life a misery; with Steve, it’s a bullying teacher; with Jimmy, it’s his father’s gambling debts; with Robin, it’s a man who’s bothering her unmarried mother. Then Peter gets an anonymous letter offering to help. Writing back, he gets four forms:

“Most of each sheet was blank, not even bearing the box number. WHAT I MOST NEED IS, a line of typescript said, and left several inches of space before the dotted line above the words Without a signature this form is invalid. There was one more sentence. Your price, it said, is something which you do not value and which you may regain.

The four kids fill out the forms, which are instantly snatched away by the same sort of wind that tears the cursed strip of runic paper from Professor Harrington’s grasp in Night of the Demon. Then Jimmy’s dad wins the pools; the teacher who’s been bothering Steve has a heart attack; the man who’s been bothering Robin’s mother gets run over; Peter’s gran falls down the stairs…

obsessiontor86In 1983, things start to go wrong. Policeman Jimmy’s wife is caught in a serious accident, an accident that occurred in an abandoned property supposedly looked after by Steve’s father’s estate agency (where Steve himself works), and as a result the agency gets a bad name and starts losing business; Robin (now a doctor) is accused of dealing in drugs, mostly by her very difficult-to-live-with mother; and Peter hears his dead grandmother, then actually sees her…

But, despite the dead grandmother, who gets a few fright-moments, there’s no equivalent of Pennywise the Clown. The real source of evil isn’t the supernatural, so much as each of the four characters being caught in vice-like situations where only desperate acts seem able to free them. It’s the old saw of being careful what you wish for, or of getting something “for free” when in fact there’s a price, only not one you’d ever have agreed to. It’s in Campbell’s four very human characters, and their very human reactions to the trying situations they find themselves in, that the evil is found.

obsession_02There’s a case for saying Obsession has no supernatural element at all, despite those glimpses of Peter’s dead and dusty-eyed gran. Peter, after all, sustained a head-injury as a kid and still has powerful headaches. Plus, there’s his guilt at what he did (signing the forms being his idea). Like The Turn of the Screw, Obsession could fit into Tzvetan Todorov’s very narrow definition of “the fantastic”, to be applied only to those narratives where you can’t tell one way or the other if the supernatural is real or a delusion. (The Turn of the Screw is, I think, a very Campbellian tale, all about someone coming unravelled under both psychological and pseudo-supernatural pressures, and, as with so many of Campbell’s books, it’s about how this can lead an at-first “normal” adult to endanger the children in their care — as in, for instance, The Claw, Midnight Sun, and The House on Nazareth Hill.) One of Campbell’s characters even says: “I think the supernatural is just something people invent as an excuse for what they do or want to do themselves.”

At the end — right at the end, and only through a now-crazed, or at least highly-disturbed Peter’s eyes — there’s a glimpse that there may be something larger behind it all, but something surprising, and very much unlike Stephen King’s evil alien spider-thing:

“He’d never put a name to the originator of the forms and of all that had happened since, perhaps because he was afraid to do so, afraid to think he had signed a pact with something so evil as it had seemed to him. Yet what kind of evil was it that had shown him that giving in to temptation led to greater and greater suffering? Perhaps it was precisely the opposite of what he had assumed.”

(At one point in the novel, another character says, “If fear is taking the place of religion, so be it.”)

Obsession_ebookIn his afterword to the latest edition, Campbell calls the book (originally titled For the Rest of Their Lives, but changed by the publisher) “one of my earliest comedies of paranoia”, thus tying it in with other such Campbell novels as The Count of Eleven or The Grin of the Dark, or, come to think of it, just about all of his work. But here, the comedy is utterly straight-faced, and more a non-comedy of helpless despair than the sort of twisted slapstick of The Count of Eleven or, say, the weird Innsmouth-like runaround of his recent novella (like Obsession, set in a seaside town), The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

In contrast to the other King novel I reviewed recently, Mr Mercedes, Campbell never disappoints when rendering a truly human evil. King’s “Mr Mercedes” is almost as much a monster as Pennywise the Clown: both are, ultimately, evil because that’s what they are, they’re evil. If Campbell’s characters are evil, it’s for the opposite reason — it’s because they’re human: weak, fallible, and caught in an awful situation, stuck in a nightmare logic that squeezes them till they pop. Obsession could be the purest example of this in Campbell’s oeuvre, an entirely situation-driven descent into four personally-tailored nightmares. It’s not one of his major novels, though I say that only because he’s written such good ones. Obsession’s still a nice little read.


Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Ex-detective Bill Hodges spends his afternoons slouched in front of the TV, watching the sort of trashy daytime show where trashy people get goaded by a trashy studio audience into slanging matches and fist-fights. As he watches, he toys with his father’s service revolver, occasionally pointing it into his mouth. Recently retired, he’s dwelling on the failure he’s made of his life: the failure of his marriage, his failure to sustain a relationship with his daughter, the purposelessness of it all now he’s retired. A part of that failure is that he didn’t get to finish some of his bigger cases; among them, the man who ploughed a stolen Mercedes into a queue of unemployed people outside a job-seekers’ fair. Then, amidst a litter of advertising mail (more trash in his already trash-filled life), there’s a letter. Signed “THE MERCEDES KILLER”, it’s both a confession and a challenge. It’s also the killer’s attempt to add one more to his tally: Mr Mercedes is goading Bill Hodges into killing himself. But instead, it galvanises him. Fed up of wallowing in his own fallibility, Hodges decides to use his retirement to track down this monster.

Meanwhile, there’s Brady Hartsfield, a man in his mid twenties living at home with his alcoholic mother. He holds down two low-paid jobs, one as a call-out computer-fixer for people whose inability to understand their computers he despises, and the other as an ice-cream man, feeding kids whose greed for sweet things he also despises. In fact, Brady Hartsfield despises everyone. He’s like the walking embodiment of those TV shows Hodges is getting too used to watching: Brady is a free-floating racist, sexist, everything-ist despiser of all that’s not himself. Brady also has a weird, frankly incestuous relationship with his mother. And in the basement — his Control Centre — he has a row of laptops, from which he plans his next move. His first move was stealing a Mercedes and driving it into a crowd of human trash; his next, to goad the owner of the Mercedes — a rich, mentally fragile widow — into ending her life. Now, he’s working on Bill Hodges.

I thought I’d give Stephen King another go because I was in need of a dose of old-fashioned storytelling — the sort that keeps you sticking with it for one more chapter, just one more chapter, and King’s good at that. This time, though, I went with one of his non-supernatural novels, so he couldn’t go over the top with shocks and gloop at the expense of story logic. And, in terms of storytelling momentum, Mr Mercedes certainly delivers. Alternating between the lives of the newly-galvanised Bill Hodges, and the walking sump of resentment that is Brady Hartsfield, King keeps the story ticking along. But as the book approached the end, I realised that, though I do love a really gripping story, I also need a bit more. I need the story to mean something, to add up to more than just x-hours of reading. And add up to what? I think I want some sort of statement about what it means to be human. That, as well as an absorbing read, is what I go to stories for.

The parallel storylines in Mr Mercedes of course invite a comparison between the two main characters (as do those initials, though I’ve only just noticed it — BH and BH — though Hodges’ actual first name is Kermit). Bill Hodges is very human, in both his failures, and the way he stirs himself from that post-retirement apathy to find some meaning in his life again. Human beings, however low they go, can always find a way up again. Brady Hartsfield, on the other hand, is simply evil, a monster, something other — he’s crossed the line. King does give us one passage, a sort of sub-Nietzschean amalgam of second-hand nihilisms that attempt to get us into his way of thinking:

“Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

But really what it comes down to is this:

‘He’s broken,’ Hodges says simply. ‘And evil. Like an apple that looks okay on the outside, but when you cut it open, it’s black and full of worms.’

‘Evil,’ she says, almost sighing the word. Then, to herself rather than him: ‘Of course he is. He battened on my sister like a vampire.’

Now I’ve finished the book, and had a chance to stand back and think about it, I think what Mr Mercedes is about is the baser parts of human nature, and how we deal with them. Those trashy tabloid-style afternoon TV shows that wallow in depravity, prurience, and the mess other people make of their lives is at the heart of it. As the book starts, Hodges is teetering on the brink of falling into that particular abyss, and of viewing his own life in those terms. Brady Hartsfield, on the other hand, is already in so deep he can’t see anything but — and it’s not just the worthless unemployed he kills and maims at the start of the book, but the kids hungry for the worthless sweetness of ice-creams he serves from his ice-cream van (“Everybody likes the ice cream man.” — King’s good at a catch-phrase), and in the mess people make of their computers, leaving icons and half-downloaded trash everywhere. Everything that makes people human is what he despises. And for him, the only logical response is to make some grand statement about how worthless all human life is: by killing himself and taking as many of them with him as possible. But something bugs him:

“The fat ex-cop bugs Brady Hartsfield. Bugs him bad. Hodges retired with full honors, they even threw him a party, and how was that right when he had failed to catch the most notorious criminal this city had ever seen?”

What bugs him is that other people can see beyond the failure, the worthlessness, and still find something to celebrate and reward in their fellow humans.

Hartsfield decides to make one final big statement. There’s an upcoming concert of the sort of trashy boy-band that pre-teen girls go mad for. For Hartsfield, this is the perfect expression of the worthlessness of human lives and ambitions. But to the girls at the show, however trashy the rest of us might think this boy-band is, it’s the most meaningful day of their lives — genuinely meaningful, in a way Hartsfield could never comprehend. The most meaningful day of his life was the day he ploughed into that queue in a stolen Mercedes.

King has spent a career dwelling on the trash-line — his own novels are thought by some to be trash, by others to be “proper literature”, but perhaps this is the point, that he’s writing both at once, because being human isn’t about one or the other; it’s about both.

Mr Mercedes was as good a read as I was hoping for, but not a great read. Still, not to be able to appreciate it for this reason would seem a little, I don’t know… Hartsfield-esque…