Liz Hand and I are of a similar age, and we both have strong and eclectic tastes in music. It is not surprising, therefore, that we both have a special fondness for the great British electric folk band, Windhollow Faire, and their legendary album, Wylding Hall. I was at school when it came out, and was rather more interested in Marc Bolan than in Julian Blake, but when I got into role-playing a lot of the friends I made were heavily into Windhollow Faire, Fairport Convention and so on.
I went to university in Southampton, and when I finally got my own wheels I took myself off into the Hampshire countryside for the day to see Wylding Hall for myself. It being several years since the tragic events that followed the recording of the album, the stream of ghoulish tourists had died down and the locals were not as tight-lipped as they might have been. One of the people I talked to turned out to be Billy Thomas, so I can attest first hand that much of what Liz writes in her book is true. Of course no one knows what really happened, and no one ever will.
By that time Billy had been introduced to the London gay scene by Jonno Redheim, so he recognized a young trans girl when he saw one. Thankfully he didn’t make a fuss, and when we got the chance to chat alone he told me about a couple of places in London that I should check out, should I ever be up in the city. His tips proved very useful, I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I wonder what he’s doing these days.
Probably nothing, because he’s imaginary. So is Windhollow Faire, though on Beltane Liz and I engaged in a long Twitter conversation about the band and no one picked us up on it. They just assumed that the old ladies were talking about yet another supposedly legendary 70s band that no one remembered any more.
Wylding Hall is a new novel from Liz Hand that will be out as an ebook from Open Road and as a limited edition hardcover from PS Publishing. There is apparently an audio book out already. More of that later.
Reading the book, I could see immediately where some of it had come from. BBC4 has been running a lot of rock documentaries of late. They are essentially oral histories of bands. Liz and I have watched them all, and talked a bit about some of them. Liz also devours rock biographies. The format of Wylding Hall is very much like one of those documentaries, in that it looks back from the present through the medium of interviews with various members of the band.
The real documentaries are probably a bit dull unless you are interested in musical history, or you grew up loving the bands being profiled. Then again, the real documentaries don’t have mysterious stately homes with non-Euclidian architecture, ancient country legends, possible ghosts, or strange disappearances.
The success of such a venture is in part dependent on the ability of the writer to make each narrator distinct. There are eight different characters in the story: the four surviving members of the band, their manager, a girlfriend of one of the band members, a rock journalist, and Billy Thomas, the young farmer’s lad who accidentally took the iconic photograph that was used for the cover of the album.
Some of this Liz does very well. I particularly loved the voice of Patricia Kenyon, the journalist. But I felt, and Liz admitted on Coode Street, that the voices of the male band members are a bit similar. I am actually keen to hear to audio book for once, because Liz says that they used a different voice actor for each character and the book is better as a result.
That quibble aside, I loved the book. I suspect that I’m also very much the target audience. If you like seeing dark fantasy really well done, you’ll probably enjoy it too. If you like having everything explained at the end of a book then you won’t.
If you do read it, hopefully you’ll want to know what Windhollow Faire might have sounded like, so I’ll provide some references.
First up, there’s a song on the Wylding Hall album that is a version of a 17th Century ballad by Thomas Campion
Second, here’s one of my favorite Fairport Convention tracks, on which Sandy Denny gives you a good idea of how Lesley Stansall’s voice might have floated like a bird over the melodies of Windhollow Faire.
And finally, because something deeply disturbing happens in the book, here’s Comus, doing their best to be far more weird than anything us mere writers can conjure.
Don’t go into the woods, children.
For more information about Elizabeth Hand, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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