OVER 40 YEARS AGO, BRILLIANT YOUNG JULIAN BLAKE, LEAD SINGER OF BRITISH ACID-FOLK BAND WINDHOLLOW FAIRE, WENT MISSING
AND WAS PRESUMED DEAD.
NOW, HIS BANDMATES TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT THAT SUMMER . . .
by Elizabeth Hand
When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to record their unique music, 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?
Read the First Chapter
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.
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.
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 Mojo 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.
Want more? See the extended excerpt on Book Smugglers.
What People Are Saying
“The Haunting of Hill House meets House of Leaves by way of Behind the Music, Elizabeth Hand’s contemporary gothic novella, Wylding Hall, is pure magic—and I’m not 100% certain that’s metaphor.” —River Heights Book Review
“Magic is the heart of Wylding Hall. […] The magic of singing the perfect song, of writing a sublime tune, of feeling fleetingly fulfilled, of remaking the world. The magic of wanting someone else, of wanting to be elsewhere.” —John H. Stevens, SF Signal
“While the ghost story aspect of Wylding Hall is creepy enough on its own terms, what lends this short novel resonance is Hand’s acute sense of lost promises in the voices of the now middle-aged narrators […] The real ghosts we have to contend with, their stories suggest, are the ghosts of our own former selves, and of our old dreams.” —Chicago Tribune
“Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015, Open Road Media) is not only a beautifully written piece of nostalgia, but also a story about the essences of an age past that still haunt the bucolic reaches of England’s countryside.” —Speculiction
“Wylding Hall itself is a fascinating setting that readers will enjoy exploring, a crumbling but elegant stage for the gradual intrusion of supernatural elements.” —Diandra Rodriguez, Yam Magazine
“[A] luminous evocation of a period and place . . . The novella gains a strange power apart from its rather restrained supernatural manifestations, a power driven by the sense of lost dreams that has always driven Hand’s best fiction.” —Locus
Praise for Wylding Hall
About Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand (b. 1957) is an award-winning author whose science fiction and fantasy novels include the Winterlong series, Waking the Moon, Last Summer at Mars Hill, and Glimmering. Her novels and short stories have won the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson Awards, among others. Hand was born in California and raised in Yonkers and Pound Ridge, New York; she now divides her time between London and the coast of Maine. Over the years she has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among many others.
Visit her website at elizabethhand.com.
Photo credit: Norman Walters