Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Haunted By the Ghost of Sandy Denny

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 66
Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall

Stalled up, strung out, and desperate to release a second album before Christmas, British “acid-folk” band Windhollow Faire decamp to Wylding Hall, an isolated medieval manor. Sequestered from London’s late-Sixties scene, they smoke dope, jam on acoustic instruments, have sex, and produce a potentially epoch-making album. But the music exacts a cost: one gifted young guitarist meanders into Wylding Hall’s labyrinthine corridors and is never seen again.

Elizabeth Hand, a veteran of both experimental fantasy and punk rock, creates an interesting semi-epic of a time when music really did offer to transform the world. Melding rock sensibilities with folk tradition, British Electric Folk bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention embodied what the Sixties meant in the UK. But when the Sixties ended without Aquarius dawning, Electric Folk retreated into a niche. It only regained force with the neo-hippie movement of the late 1990s.

Windhollow Faire’s story unfolds episodically: Hand’s frame story features a nameless music journalist interviewing witnesses to events at Wylding Hall. Surviving bandmates, devoted groupies, music business professionals, and interested locals recount events surrounding that fateful summer. Not surprisingly, their accounts don’t wholly jibe. This forces us readers to speculate who among the eight named witnesses really understands, and just what really happened.

Business manager Tom Haring sequesters his band for one reason: he needs the payday following Windhollow Faire’s acclaimed, but middling-selling, first album. His band sees it differently, though each brings their own viewpoint. Singer Lesley envisions a small proto-Woodstock. Bassist Ashton sees a vacation from London’s constant performance pressures. Drummer Jonno, closeted when homosexuality is still illegal, just needs some rest. Everyone experiences what they expect. Mostly.

Elizabeth Hand
But singer-songwriter Julian’s experiences color the story. An ardent medievalist and gifted guitarist, his skills come together at Wylding. He discovers a library nobody else can find, littered with pre-Enlightenment poetry unknown to scholars, which he immediately begins setting to music. This includes a strange Thomas Campion madrigal that everyone finds strangely hypnotic. It may also be a summoning spell, calling a fair-skinned girl who tempts Julian to his doom.

Hand’s storytelling is a masterpiece of atmosphere and characterization. The idea of a shapeshifting house that eats hippies implies a horror novel; but Hand actually creates a “weird” narrative reminiscent of Poe and Borges. What each character notices about Wylding Hall reveals something about their individual baggage, which Wylding reflects. This makes us wonder, does Wylding Hall really change when nobody’s looking? Or can the characters just not agree?

Symbolism in this novella isn’t subtle. Wylding Hall supposedly dates to medieval times, but includes a Tudor wing, a residential area with modern plumbing, and—in later chapters—a neolithic burial chamber. There’s even implications of new construction, making Wylding an outgrowth of British history. Thrust into that environment a band playing traditional music on modern instruments, and pressure will almost inevitably develop, hastening the eventual explosion.

While manager Tom pushes Windhollow to create a marketable album, groupie girlfriend and part-time mystic Nancy tries to keep the band grounded. Members meanwhile have wildly divergent ideas of what artistic integrity means: long drug-fueled jam sessions, or busking, or meticulous research. The various characters represent the forces artists confront daily, the demand for money and family and honesty, which few, even the best, ever successfully reconcile.

Hand makes no secret, from page one, that Julian enters Wylding Hall and never returns; the only mystery remains why he stays. Witnessing the forces feuding to control his band, knowing he’s accomplished his musical best, his decision to vanish and remain forever young makes perfect sense. Especially for us, with perfect hindsight, knowing his musical milieu has peaked, going forward and aging offers little promise.

Thus, like Jimi Hendrix or Gram Parsons, Julian remains forever young, linked with his time, free never to see himself become redundant or antique. He transcends mortality, becomes uniquely himself, and remains pure to his art. Okay, this “accomplishment” means never creating new art, never acquiring new audiences, so it’s a Pyrrhic victory. But that’s arguably Hand’s (admittedly unsubtle) point: art, like all human endeavors, is an ultimately doomed pursuit.

Hand embroiders her narrative with little nods us old folkies will appreciate. Besides direct acknowledgement of acts from Lindisfarne to Devendra Banhart, Hand gives winks to Sweeney’s Men, Vashti Bunyan, and others which whisk by so fast, only fans will recognize them. This contributes to the experience: it’s full immersion storytelling, dropping us into the Electric Folk world feet first. Like Julian, many readers may prefer to stay.

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