What Can't Be Known in Wylding Hall
Wylding Hall, the new short novel from Elizabeth Hand, culminates in two sightings. The very last, the moment that ends the novel, is a glimpse of two people through a crowd. The moment is brief, ephemeral -- the couple there and then gone -- but it extends into the white space that comes after the end of the story through a number of unanswered questions. How did they get there? What happened in the years since they were last seen? Why do they appear as young as they do?
The second sighting, which comes two chapters before, is no less mysterious. A series of photographs show the members of the band Windhollow Faire in the garden of Wylding Hall, where they have retreated to write their second album. The band looks up at a flock of birds. Behind them is a woman in white who no one remembers being present and whose physical appearance becomes increasingly strange with each photograph in the series.
Both sightings -- the couple in the crowd and the photographs -- represent passing moments of mystery. What is intriguing about the photographs is that their mystery is experienced from a distance. On the day the photographs are taken, the band is startled by the birds and amazed by the garden in which flowers bloom out of season, but no one sees the true object of mystery. No one experiences it directly. It is not until the photographs are developed, well after the group has left Wylding Hall, that they are confronted by mystery. Like a limb, the photographs are a part of that mystery, scratching at the window, trying to get in.
The plot of Wylding Hall is straightforward and almost clichéd. In the early 1970s, the folk band Windhollow Faire comes to the old and isolated Wylding Hall to work on material for their second album. The group fits with familiar band-member dynamics: the charismatic lead singer and guitar player, the three men of the rhythm section, who are somewhat difficult to tell apart, and the one woman in the band, who is loud and can drink all the men under the table. The narrative encompasses the expected jealousies between the band members and strange discoveries in the old house, which seems to be a bric-a-brac of eras, with a Tudor wing, a Norman wing, a Victorian wing, and so on.
Despite the photographs and the sighting in the crowd, both of which take place far from Wylding Hall, the majority of the fantastic is tied directly to the house and to the ancient barrow in the grounds behind the house. Unlike other haunted or fantastic houses, though, there is no clear story to explain the happenings. No one was murdered in the house and now haunts it. No one experienced some other strange and uncomfortable tragedy. Unlike in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, there is no direct statement in the narrative that the house itself is evil or uncanny. The story never offers a clear explanation for why Wylding Hall would be the location of the fantastic.
Part of this is because the conceit of the novel is that the reader knows more than what is provided on the page. Within the world of the novel, Windhollow Faire produced two albums in the 1970s, the second of which was called Wylding Hall and featured one of the photographs from the garden as its album cover. "Everyone knows what the place [Wylding Hall] looks like because of the album cover," says Tom Haring, the band's manager, in the first paragraph of the novel. But, of course, the reader does not. The effect is similar to Ysabeau S. Wilce's Prophecies, Libels, & Dreams, which I wrote about in November. There are two levels of knowledge, that which the book assumes a fictional reader would know and that which an actual reader knows. It's the kind of strategy that will drive certain readers up the wall, while invigorating and intriguing the readers who search for the unknowable in their books. "[I]t all adds up, doesn't it?" says one of the band members near the end of the novel, but neither the reader nor the other characters can be certain they agree.
Despite appreciating the unknowable, I was also frustrated at times by how information was managed in Wylding Hall. The narrative is delivered through a series of monologues, as characters remember the events of their time in the house. The chapters splice together these reflections, much as monologues might be interspersed in a documentary. This creates a spiraling pattern as one character introduces a topic, a second discusses the topic in more detail, a third introduces another aspect of the topic, and so on, the narrative circling toward the object at its center. Characters often hint at and approach topics without directly engaging with them, creating cliffhangers at the ends of chapters and sections as we wait for another character to pick up the thread. In a longer or weaker novel, the repetition of cliffhangers would have been enough for me to put the book aside.
The strength of the novel lies not in this somewhat frustrating structure, but in striking moments of unease which are threaded together by the presence of birds. For example, one of our first experiences of strangeness comes in the third chapter, as the characters arrive at Wylding Hall. Ashton, the band's bassist, describes wandering down a corridor in search of a bathroom (a loo, since we are in Britain), opening doors on empty rooms with furniture piled up and unused. The last room on the corridor opens easily, almost without being touched, letting out a foul smell and revealing a floor covered in what Ashton mistakes for carpets, discarded and rotten. He's wrong: "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." When he runs from the room, one of those missing beaks is driven into his foot like a loose nail, leaving a scar. He tells no one but the reader.
The image of the dead birds is picked up in the local village pub, which is called The Wren. Ashton and Leslie, the one girl in the band, visit the pub to do some singing. A few days later, Will, who plays rhythm guitar and has a better understanding of the history behind the folk songs they sing, visits the pub on his own and notices a number of photos on the walls. These photos are in cheap frames, "[t]he kind of thing you see in every pub in England--the local rugby team, or someone's brothers with the goalie from Manchester United, or the great granddad of the proprietor." But the boys in these photos aren't wearing rugby uniforms. They're dressed in oversized coats and hats, their expressions dour. In their hands are cages of a sort, and in the cages, strung up by one foot each, are dead birds, tiny birds. Wrens.
The images of birds continue on and on: columns decorated with delicate carvings of tiny wings, something unseen fluttering madly against the ceiling, a bird battering itself against walls and windows, the flock of birds stretched across the sky over the band in the garden. In each moment, there is a sense of something behind what we see and experience, something trying to make its way in. Bit by bit, that something ruptures the everyday, revealing itself through a smell in the house, a bird at the window, a woman in the garden. Yet each time, the characters are never quite sure what they just saw and we, as readers, are not sure what we have encountered. It may indeed all add up, but what does it add up to? The answer hovers beyond our grasp as we spiral forever toward a knowledge we cannot have.