by Elizabeth Hand
When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to work on their second album, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.
Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?
This novella is strong on atmosphere, but a little weak on story-- particularly when it comes time for a conclusion. That seems to be a common trait for "these kinds of stories", and it's something I can overlook, to some degree-- but the ending left me more confused than satisfyingly chilled.
The atmosphere and a few creepy-crawly moments might merit four stars. The ending was disappointingly inconclusive, though, so it ends up at three stars.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Some reviewers don't like the long-after-the-fact interview format. It does take away some of the suspense, since you know that the interviewees will all survive their time at Wylding Hall, but it was still pretty tense at the right moments. There were times when I didn't really need to have the same information repeated by the different characters, though I must grudgingly admit that it lends a certain verisimilitude to the interview format/framework.
--Two or three of the male characters seemed to blend together for me. I eventually could keep Jonno separate, but Will and Ashton might just as well have been blended into one character, as far as I was concerned. One of them (Ashton) is supposed to be the skeptic of the group, I guess, but neither of them were distinct enough. That's a quibble, though. Most of the other characters were easy to keep straight.
--This book introduced me to the "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance". Amazing that such a bizarre custom could survive all these hundreds of years! The power of tradition!
--There are a handful of creepy incidents scattered through the book, but I never felt that they came together satisfactorily. Sadly, there was no moment of even semi-revelation. The closest we get to it is Will saying this: "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?"
...Um, no, actually. It doesn't add up for me, at least. Maybe I'm being dense, but-- huh? I'd appreciate a little more to go on, here. Is the girl the embodiment of the wrens the village hunt? Or are the hunted wrens some type of sacrifice to keep her at bay?
Much was made of Julian's dabbling in "magick" and his obsession with different kinds of time. His odd watch is finally found in a place where it shouldn't possibly have been able to be-- and one of his friends sees Julian and "the girl", years later, in another country, looking as though he hasn't aged a day since his disappearance. Spooky... But what does it mean? How does it fit in with the weird ghost/fairy-girl and the wrens? Did he finally figure out a way to stop time or switch into a different time mode?
Did Julian somehow conjure the girl out of hiding-- intentionally or not? She's clearly drawn to him-- both when she practically throws herself at him in the pub and when she zooms up to him in the photo shoot. Is the girl the one responsible for the strange things that happened at Wylding Hall (such as doors that mysteriously lock and unlock on their own, never-ending hallways, etc.)? And what in the world is the story behind the pile of wrens with missing beaks?! (Let me guess. The village-caught wrens are sacrifices to keep her away, and the beak is her favorite part? Ok, only joking, but seriously-- what does it meeeaaannn?)
All those creepy, spooky, eerie moments are so thinly connected that I can't quite see what's intended. It may all add up for some readers, but apparently my trusty spookulator is out of order, because I can't seem to crunch these numbers.
This was an enjoyable, quick read, even if I can't do the calculus.