I’ve been wanting to read Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand forever—and now that I finally have, I’m mad at myself for waiting so long. Believe me when I tell you: I want to live in this book—haunts and oddities and all.
1970s British folk rock culture. Countryside folklore and strange folk magic. Old occult books and unsettling birds. A bizarre, sprawling old house whose interior layout doesn’t make sense. Could there be a book more tailor-made to my tastes and interests?
It’s told in a “documentary” style, many years after the bizarre and unsettling events which occurred back in the 70s. Members of the folk rock band Windhollow Faire recall the events that transpired at Wylding Hall, the old and decaying house where they stayed one golden summer to record their (now-iconic) album. Something strange happened in that house—and something mysterious happened to their heartbreakingly talented lead singer. We receive the story in bits and pieces, as band members and others involved recount their remembrances of what happened that haunted summer.
Read the excerpt below—I guarantee you won’t be able to stop. This novella isn’t very long—but the world inside it is expansive and immersive. If you’re looking to squeeze in one final book for 2021, you might just be able to finish this in a single sitting.
Read on for an excerpt of Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand, and then purchase the book.
Tom Haring, Manager/Producer
I was the one who found the house. A friend of my sister-in-law knew the owners; they were living in Barcelona that summer and the place was to let. Not cheaply, either. But I knew how badly everyone needed to get away after the whole horrible situation with Arianna, and this seemed as good a bolt-hole as any. These days the new owners have had to put up a fence to keep away the curious. Everyone knows what the place looks like because of the album cover, and now you can just Google the name and get directions down to the last millimeter.
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But back then, Wylding Hall was a mere dot on the ordnance survey map. You couldn’t have found it with a compass. Most people go there now because of what happened while the band was living there and recording that first album. We have some ideas about what actually went on, of course, but the fans, they can only speculate.
Which is always good for business.
Mostly, it’s the music, of course. Twenty years ago, there was that millennium survey where Wylding Hall topped out at Number Seven, ahead of Definitely Maybe, which shocked everybody except for me. Then “Oaken Ashes” got used in that advert for, what was it? Some mobile company. So now there’s the great Windhollow Faire backlash.
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And inexplicable—even better, inexplicable and terrible—things are always good for the music business, right?
Cynical but true.
Apart from when I drove out in the mobile unit and we laid down those rough tracks, I was only there a few times. You know, check in and see how the rehearsal process was going, make sure everyone’s instruments were in one piece, and they were getting their vitamins. And there’s no point now in keeping anything off the record, right? We all knew what was going on down there, which in those days was mostly hash and acid.
And of course, everyone was so young. Julian was eighteen. So was Will. Ashton and Jon were, what? Nineteen, maybe twenty. Lesley had just turned seventeen. I was the elder statesman at all of twenty-three.
Ah, those were golden days. You’re going to say I’m tearing up here in front of the camera, aren’t you? I don’t give a fuck. They were golden boys and girls, that was a golden summer, and we had the Summer King.
And we all know what happens to the Summer King. That girl from the album cover, she’d be the only one knows what really went on. But we can’t ask her, can we?
Will Fogerty, rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin
I knew Julian from school. We both grew up in Hampstead and attended Hampstead School for the local comprehensive school: Posh boys compared to Ashton and Jon, which put us at a distinct disadvantage, I can tell you that! Ashton was part of the Muswell Hill music mafia; all those blokes knew each other—stand in the middle of Archway and throw a rock in any direction, and you’d hit a folk musician.
Whereas if you threw a rock in Hampstead and hit anyone, you’d end up in prison. There were days when I could have done with that happening to Ashton. He could be a right bastard.
Still, that was our hardship, mine and Julian’s—not belonging to the working class. Me and Julian weren’t at public school—what you Americans call private school—and Hampstead’s North London, not posh Kensington. But Muswell Hill was where the best musicians came from. Something in the air. Or the drink, more likely.
I started on violin and Julian played the piano—not sure when he took up the guitar. Once he did, it was like he’d been born to it—he was an extraordinary guitar player. These crazy tunings that would make it sound like he was playing a flute or a sitar, or a human voice. We used to play at the Hampstead Folk Club, which was a glorified name for an upper room above a pub. All the folk clubs were like that: up a stairway to a dark paneled room with chairs lined up and everyone smoking cigarettes and nursing their pint. If you were lucky, someone might have a joint and would pass it to you. Nothing heavier than that. No one paid to hear us sing. And none of us musicians got paid, unless you were someone like John Martyn.
But it was a good way to meet girls, I thought, so I dragged Julian along with me to take our turn at the front of the room. Girls loved it. Girls loved him; he could’ve played the kazoo and they’d be banging on his door. He was just too good-looking, but shy around the girls in those days. Even then, people wondered, Was he gay? If he was, I never saw any of it.
Lesley said she wondered sometimes, but I think—and this is off the record; Les and I are still close, and I wouldn’t want any hurt feelings. Also, she has a temper. But I think Julian just wasn’t attracted to her. Not that Les wasn’t pretty. She was a lovely girl; we all fancied her. That’s why we took her on!
But you know what I mean. She was a different type, physically, from Arianna. Lesley wasn’t a waif, and even in school Jules always went for the wee girls with the big, sad eyes. No stamina, girls like that. I would know. And Les was scary smart, which can be intimidating for a bloke, even someone as brilliant as Julian. Maybe more intimidating. I don’t think he was accustomed to being with someone who was his equal. Musically, yes, but not someone who could match him intellectually. Especially a girl.
And Lesley was American to boot, which in those days was a novelty, and also an affront to a lot of people. I mean, an American teenager singing traditional English folk songs in a London pub? Some people came just to see her fail. Well, that didn’t happen.
Lesley Stansall, singer/songwriter
He never talked about what happened with Arianna. The police report said she fell from a third floor window to the pavement. There were no bars across the window in Julian’s flat; I do know that. She was depressive—that’s what they’d say now—her and Julian both.
Suicide? How could it possibly matter all these years later, whether I think she killed herself? She was a teenager; we were all teenagers. Today Arianna would be some gothy little girl hunched over her mobile. She was a beautiful child with a pretty voice. She didn’t have it for the long haul.
Julian took Arianna’s death very hard. He felt responsible: “I should have never let her into the flat that night, it was my fault we’d had an argument,” etcetera etcetera. They’d done a gig together at Middle Earth, just the two of them. Afterward, he told her the rest of the band wanted to head off in a different direction, musically. She’d thought that her and Julian singing together would be the start of something, a Simon & Garfunkel sort of duo. Instead, it was the end. He was trying to give her a gentle kiss-off, but I think it had the opposite effect.
Jon Redheim, drums and percussion
I saw it coming with Arianna. She was drop-dead gorgeous, but she was, you know, high maintenance. A cross between Nico and what’s-her-name, that French singer. Juliette Greco. Always wearing black, back before everyone and his grandmother was wearing black. She was a big mope, Arianna, and we were well rid of her. There, I said it.
Ashton Moorehouse, bass
We slept together once after a gig. She cried afterward, said she’d betrayed Julian. I told her Julian wouldn’t give a fuck. Which was true, but probably I shouldn’t have said it. She was beautiful, but too skinny for my taste. I like a girl with meat on her bones. Julian, he always went for the ones a good wind would blow away.
I can still remember when Tom told us he’d booked Wylding Hall for the summer. Ashton and Jon weren’t happy about it.
Ashton especially; he was royally pissed off. They were afraid of what they’d miss here in London. Girls, mostly, for Ashton. Boys for Jon, though no one was supposed to know that. And there’s Tom with his high-minded idea that all anyone needed was a month in the country to recover from Arianna’s death.
Yeah, I know: I’m being a snark, ’cause I wasn’t with Windhollow Faire from the very beginning and didn’t really know her. So sue me. And it’s true: with or without Arianna, they were getting a lot of gigs. Windhollow Faire had just come out that Christmas—their first album—and sales were good. There was no music press like there is now; you didn’t have Pitchfork or YouTube and all that stuff. Rolling Stone had only been around for a few years, and you had Melody Maker and NME. There was no way to really publicize your band except by playing, like, constantly. Which they did.
But to be brutally honest, even before Arianna died, they were getting tapped out. I’d heard Windhollow play a few times, and while they were good—I believe that “promising” is the overused adjective—they were never going to be much more than that if they didn’t do something drastic.
And I know Tom could see that they were starting to flag, inspiration-wise. Which is why he suggested that Julian and Will come hear me at the Troubadour one night. I was doing a couple of Dylan covers, some Velvet Underground—hardly anyone here had heard of them—along with the usual stuff from the Child Ballads songbook. I saved my own songs for last. I knew I had them as soon I did “Fallen Sky.”
My god, that girl could sing! Les opened her mouth, and Julian and me looked at each other and just started laughing. By the time she got to “Fallen Sky,” we were practically climbing over the tables to ask her to join Windhollow.
In retrospect, we should have told Arianna immediately that we’d found a new female singer. I should have told her. It was my responsibility as manager. The fact that Lesley was American must have been a real slap in the face for Arianna. I’ve taken the blame from the outset. Still, Julian never forgave himself.
That was the real reason I signed that summer’s lease on Wylding Hall: to get Julian away from his bedsit in Gospel Oak. Which, let me tell you, was the most god-awful, depressing flat that you can imagine. I would have flung myself out the window, too, if I’d spent more than a week there.
Never mind, strike that. I don’t need any more crazed fans blaming me for what happened. All I can say is that, at the time, spending three months at a beautiful old wreck of a stately home in the English countryside seemed like a good idea.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Isn’t that what you say in America? But I didn’t have hindsight. When it came to Windhollow Faire, I was utterly blind.
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