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Behind the Wicker Man

2,446 words

Elizabeth Hand
Wylding Hall
New York: Open Road Media, 2015

The photos I saw in the pub—the hunting of the wren—the song Julian unearthed and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet … it all adds up, doesn’t it?

If you heard of a “dark fantasy” novel that took place, not in some Gothic castle in the olden days, but in the small town in the modern South, where an alt-Right group planned a rally, but their tiki torch parade unleased eldritch terrors, including the disappearance of their charismatic leader, would you buy it? Sure, we all would!

Well, this isn’t that novel. But it’s as close as we’ll get for a while. See, it takes place amongst the alt-Folk group, or rather, in an alternative timeline starting in 1972, just prior to the release of The Wicker Man, among the British trad-folk-rock movement.

The author’s website says:

In the aftermath of the mysterious death of their lead singer, the young members of a now-legendary British acid folk band hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient English country house with its own dark secrets. There they record Wylding Hall, the album that makes their reputation– but at a terrifying cost, when Julian Blake, their new lead singer,[1] disappears within the mansion and is never seen again. Now, years later, each of the surviving musicians, their friends and lovers, meets with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own version of what happened during that summer. But whose story is the true one? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

This book caught my eye when the kindle went on sale, and as a fan of the novella-length horror genre, I was quick to snap it up. I was also sure I had heard this tale before. Since Christopher Pankhurst is my go-to guy for anything to do with England’s hidden reverse,[2] a little googling around turned up this:

In the summer of 1969 the members of Fairport Convention were gathered together at a country house in Farley Chamberlayne in picturesque Hampshire [as is Wylding Hall]. There they were to record their most celebrated album, Liege & Lief, the definitive statement in English folk-rock. The country retreat setting was partly therapeutic as the band had earlier that year been involved in a tragic road accident whilst on their way back from a gig in Birmingham. The drummer, Martin Lamble, and guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Taylor, were both killed. Clearly, the remaining members of Fairport were looking for a new musical direction as they sought to put the past behind them.

They found a new voice by revisiting some traditional English folk songs and playing them as though they were contemporary rock songs. In 1969 this was heady stuff, and even now it’s easy to pick up on the creativity and energy that went into the crafting of this seminal album. With the immortal voice of Sandy Denny delivering the vocals there is a genuinely timeless feel to the album. It could easily have been a case of “the worst of both worlds,” with neither the folk elements being disciplined enough, nor the rock elements being wild enough. As it is, the traditional structures of the folk songs avoid a sense of pastiche through the musical brilliance of both Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings and the album is a perfect integration of the traditional and the modern.

In this case, Richard Thompson is swapped out for Nick Drake (also conveniently deceased at about this time). [3] Not that there’s anything wrong with that:

You’ve seen the photos, so you know how beautiful he was when he was young. But really, they barely captured him. He stooped so much of the time, you never saw how tall he actually was. He wasn’t a sylph—he was big-boned, long, lanky arms and legs, and that marvelous hair. Thick and straight and glossy: it felt like honey pouring through your fingers. He always wore the same brown corduroy jacket, a little short in the arms, so you could see his wrists. And his wristwatch: an old-fashioned watch that you had to wind every day. Expensive—I think he’d received it when he graduated from secondary school.

You might note the watch and “time,” which will become a theme.

It might sound like I’m criticizing the conceit, but not at all; it’s an interesting mash-up of the horror and alternative history genres,[4] and specifically an cultural era of some interest to Counter-Currents readers.

It also piqued my interest because the whole “rock band seeks desolate location for recording” meme is also a genre in itself, and almost uniquely expressed in the form of bad movies. In fact, some of the worst.

Reading the book’s description, my first association was with the infamous Rock and Roll Nightmare (John Fasano, 1987), starring Canadian hair-metal titan Jon-Mikl Thor:

At an old farmhouse, a family mysteriously disappears at the hands of evil. Years later, hair metal band The Tritons comes to the farmhouse, whose barn now features a 24-track recording studio. Lead singer John Triton gets the band to perform their first night in the farmhouse after dinner, and weird little beasties suddenly appear, and strange things start to happen. Band members (and their tag along girlfriends) begin to act strangely and vanish one by one. Soon, only John Triton remains, and he holds a secret. Finally, the evil shows itself and a battle between heaven and hell ensues….[5]

Thor’s previous outing, Zombie Nightmare (John Bravman, 1986), was bad enough to be featured on the original run of Mystery Science Theater (Episode 604); this one had to wait for the RiffTrax reincarnation to get its due.[6]

Yet another such work was also featured on MST3k (Episode 303), and in fact became a leading fan favorite: the beloved Pod People (Juan Piquer Simón, 1983). Here, the band is some kind of Euro-Pop monstrosity (though they are not the titular Pod People), and although technically they are actually escaping the recording studio for a camping trip, it’s essentially the same idea.

Interestingly, though Jon-Mikl Thor and his eponymous band (Thor) were a real thing, and actually are a pretty good metal act, the Euro-Band of Pod People is loathesome enough to establish some MST benchmarks…

The film features the fictional pop band’s performance of “Burning Rubber Tires”, which was lampooned in a sketch on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for its unintelligible lyrics, specifically the chorus, “hear the engines roar now”, which was interpreted by the MST3K cast as “hideous control now”, “idiot control now” and other variations. The lead singer’s after-song gesture of making the OK sign, smiling, and saying, “It stinks” became a recurring in-joke on MST3K.[7]

… Along with some somnolent “space” music that could come right off the Hearts of Space radio show; the brutal yanking between musical genres on the soundtrack echoes, if you will, the almost random editing together of the various subplots. [8]

Again, it might sound like I’m gearing up to slag this book by bringing up such crap, but quite the contrary, I mean to suggest that here we have a much more interesting musical genre in a much more interesting time.

Time! The author seems to be of the same generation as the reviewer, [9] and she is able to get the details right that suggest the period before blogs and iPhones – the NME, “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” Nick Kent as the doyen of British rock critics; UFO – not a flying saucer; a time when a rock band could really just disappear into the countryside, and drop down at the local pub for a little busking without worrying about selfies and YouTube videos going online.

She also wisely refrains from trying to do more than suggest the sound of this never-was band; in fact, they rather bristle at comparisons with the more fashionable Steeleye Span and Fairport. One clue might be that they are eager to hear Lou Reed’s “new” album, Transformer – they rather like “Perfect Day.”[10]

Speaking of “albums” those the days when LP covers were large, often gatefolds, and full of material for meditation; like the watch, another plot point.

What of the text itself, the art, if you will? With a work this short, one doesn’t want to get into too much detail, lest there be nothing left for the reader to discover. One can note, however, that there are two axes of disquiet at work here.

One, appropriately to a book of alternative history, is time. As noted, the narrative is an oral history, taken in the present, presenting the recollections of the surviving band members, along with their manager, various journos, and a photographer.

By my count, thanks to the kindle search feature, the word “time” occurs no less than 146 … um, times, which seems a significant number for a tale this short. And it occurs all the way through, from the epigraph (the “song Julian unearthed,” a lyric of Thomas Campion)

Thrice tosse these Oaken ashes in the ayre,
Thrice sit thou mute in this inchanted chayre;
Then thrice three times tye up this true loves knot,
And murmur soft, shee will, or shee will not.

Through to the penultimate sentence, which delivers the climactic blow that Lovecraft, or his editors, would have put in italics.
And of course that watch, which will serve as the objective correlative of the shock:

And his wristwatch: an old-fashioned watch that you had to wind every day. Expensive—I think he’d received it when he graduated from secondary school. Lots of fancy dials and second hands—is there something smaller than a second? If there is, Julian’s watch had a hand that measured that. He was always checking it, and I was always checking him. I could have stared at him all day. I did stare at him all day, sometimes, when we were rehearsing.

Julian, true to his namesake William, even delivers a nifty little lesson in interdimensionality to current bird:

Eventually he found a piece of white paper, drew something on it and folded it, like a fan. “Now look at this.” He held it up: a narrow, folded rectangle of blank paper. “This is us, now. Profane time.” I felt a bit of a stab at that. Because we’d just spent the night together, and for me, that had been sacred time. But I only nodded.[11]

“Okay then. Taa daa—” He unfolded the paper so I could see what he’d drawn—a simple landscape: hills and trees, sun coming up on the horizon. “Here’s what’s inside—a whole other world! Well, it’s a bit bigger than this,” he added, and laughed. “But that’s what it’s like …” For the next few minutes, he sat and slowly folded and unfolded the paper, staring at it intently: almost as though he were meditating or seeing something there that I couldn’t. At the time, I thought he probably was just stoned: grabbed a few hits while I was in the loo. Now I’m not so sure.

The second theme is birds, specifically wrens, which seem to be everywhere – blocking out the sun while shooting a cover photo, subjects of a strange local hunting custom memorialized in photos displayed in a pub, to the floor of a hidden room:

It wasn’t rolled-up carpets on the floor. It was birds, hundreds of birds, maybe thousands…They were all dead. Little birds, wrens or sparrows — I didn’t know from birds. These were tiny, small enough to fit in your hand, and brown, with twisty tiny black claws, all piled atop each other like they’d been shoveled there. Some of them — a lot of them — were missing their beaks.

It’s all very nicely done, and if I have any real criticism it’s that, contrary to the epigraph above, I’m not at all sure it “all adds up.” As a long-time fan of the novella form, for once I think more would really have been more here.

I’m not asking for a Van Helsing or Poirot style narrative explanation, but it would be nice to have some idea of how the bird/wren system – which is rather nicely developed – fits in with the eventual apparition, who seems sea-based (mermaid)?[12] Or is she a photographable fairy, a la Conan Doyle’s Cottingley Fairies?

The local pub (“Time, gentlemen”) seems the real nexus of evil, not Wylding Hall, spooky as it is – the pub has the photos that suggest some kind of Wicker Man-style rural cult, and that’s where the apparition meets up with Julian – but none of the locals seems to understand who she is or why she appears in their midst. And how is all this related to the original female lead who’s dead before the action starts; or is it?

Lovecraft – at his best, of course, such as “The Rats in the Walls” or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward — would have found some way to convey the history of the manor or the local cults obliquely enough to give the reader just enough enlightenment to grok what’s happening and perhaps find it even more chilling.

But forcing comparisons with Lovecraft is always a bit unfair. What’s here is a short enough read that delivers a fair amount of chill, in an atmos’ that many readers here at Counter-Currents will find very simpatico. What more can one ask for?

Notes

[1] Curiously, unless I’ve been “ensorcelled” (a favorite word of Julian’s)by my own reading, the author herself is mistaken; Leslie is the new singer, taking the place of the tragically dead Annibell; Julian is the charismatic singer, not the new one.

[2] See various essays collected in Numinous Machines (Counter-Currents, 2017). See also David Keenan’s England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground (2002; new edition London: Strange Attractor Press, 2016).

[3] “For fans of ’70s Folk-Rock . . . Fairport [Convention] in a parallel gothic horror universe, with a touch of Nick Drake thrown in. Skillfully written and well-researched novella from Elizabeth Hand.” —Richard Thompson, guitarist and songwriter, Amazon.com. There’s also a girlfriend/psychic that reminds me of June Chadwick’s character in Spinal Tap, but fortunately nothing else does.

[4]Wylding Hall is an oral history of a folk band that never was.” https://www.tor.com/2016/05/17/on-the-edges-of-a-haunting-elizabeth-hands-wylding-hall/.

[5] Chris Rutkowski, IMDB.com, here.

[6] Preview here.

[7] Wikipedia, here.

[8] Enjoy it here.

[9] “About the Author: Elizabeth Hand flunked out of college a couple of years after seeing Patti Smith perform and became involved in the nascent punk scenes in DC and New York.” – Amazon.com

[10] No mention of “Satellite of Love,” for an MST3k link.

[11] Julian’s the sort of chap who takes a girl back to his room to show her the stacks of rare books under his bed, pulls out a volume of Eliade and says “Do you know this?”

[12] If not, why bring up the mermaid in Cornwall legend?

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3 Comments

  1. nineofclubs
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    The Wren, the Wren
    The king of all birds
    On St Stephens Day
    Was caught in the furze
    His clothes were all tattered
    His shoes were all worn
    So up with the kettle and down with the pan
    And give us a penny to bury the Wren.

    The Wren represents the kingship of the most able. Regardless of wealth or external appearances the Wren will win through.

    Lawson wrote of the ‘rough, crude men who will save White Australia’ – the circle completes.

    .

  2. nineofclubs
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Echoes here too of Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales.

    A great many bands recorded in the rural studios, including Motörhead, Hawkwind and Bad Manners.

    As far as I know, no one disappeared or died during recording though..

  3. Durtal
    Posted February 1, 2018 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    For a novel-length treatment of the same or, rather, similar, theme try Phil Rickman’s rather fine ‘December’. There is even an accompanying album ‘The Abbey Tapes’.

    Elizabeth Hand is also the author of an excellent dark fantasy/horror novel, ‘Waking the Moon’, which, although written from a feminist perspective, treats the Apollonian versus Dionysian dichotomy in a suprisingly balanced way. It almost seems to be informed by a reading of Evola, specifically ‘Revolt Against the Modern World’, but, I think, predates Inner Traditions’ English translations of Evola’s work.

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