Elizabeth Hand’s “Hard Light” and “Wylding Hall”: Art, Crime, Madness and Magic

While Hard Light and Wylding Hall are in different genres—respectively, crime fiction and ghost story—they both engage with the same source material. Both texts engage with the folklore of Britain and subcultures/underground artistic movements.

Hard Light
Hard Light is the third installment of the Cass Neary crime series. Neary is/was a photographer, an chronicler of New York’s punk scene. She is manipulative, a kleptomaniac, and  a drug addict. Her first person narrative is utterly charming, full of deadpan snark, and the lump of coal that is her heart has a vein or two of gold. The Cass Neary series aren’t traditional mysteries; they are more “why-dunits” than “whodunits,” and as such, examine subcultures and their criminal elements. This time, she stumbles into the milleu of refugees from the British Acid Rock and underground film scene. Neary discovers that someone has been killing off members of a hippie commune for an unknown reason. The players in her novel are all arty bohemian eccentrics, from crooked art dealers to burnt out cult singers. (They all have wonderfully odd names: Poppy, Morven and Tamsin). While there is no overt supernatural element in Hard Light, Neary has an uncanny ability to insert herself into shady dealings:

“Ever since that night, I can sense damage, smell it like an acrid pheromone seeping from the pores of people around me. The wrong kind of street, the wrong kind of light, and the stink of my own terror floods my throat and nostrils. It’s why I can read photos the way I do, like they’re tarot cards or the I Ching. Because that’s what photography is—or was before the advent of digital—damage, the corrosive effect sunlight has on chemicals and prepared surfaces.”

Wylding Hall
Wylding Hall is a haunted house novella set in the British Acid Folk scene. It takes the unique form of a “Behind the Music” style documentary—i.e., a series of monologues about the creation of the fictional folk rock band Windhollow Faire’s lone album. In the early 70s, the band rents out the allegedly haunted Wylding Hall to record its debut. To say more would spoil the plot. The recording sessions are mired in drug use and band tensions, all set against the backdrop of mysterious Wylding Hall, which is as menacing as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.
While unrelated by genre, both books share thematic DNA. A Celtic mysticism informs both works. It is not the fey “Celtic Twilight” kind favored by many fantasy writers. The folklore here is primal and chthonian, more “Rawhead and Bloodybones” than Enya and the Sidhe. Both books also deal with the fallout from drug-fueled subcultures. Hard Light and Wylding Hall mine similar territory with wildly different outcomes.

Favorite Spooky Reads: The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, updated the ghost story, and used its various tropes to create a new kind of character study. (Forget those douchetastic ghosthunter shows—this team has a suave elegance to their work). It’s mostly the story of Eleanor, a lonely, mousy misfit of a woman who slowly and disturbingly falls in love with the foreboding, architectural monstrosity known as Hill House. Eleanor has an active imagination and never seems quite connected with the mundane world. She comes alive in Hill House, where she is a part of parapyschological research team. And the house, seemingly, seems share her affections. It communicates with her in ways that are scary….and oddly, tender. The reader wants Eleanor to join with her beloved, and escape from it at the same time. Jackson creates marvelous secondary characters—the brash, chic probably lesbian artist Theo, the bratty playboy heir to Hill House Luke, and doddering Professor who heads up the research team. She also adds a kind of mordant humor, such as the dour doomladen housekeeper. Jackson’s prose is written with a delicate beauty that suffuses even the more suspenseful set pieces; neither movies that used the book as source material manage to capture that sensibility. The Haunting of Hill House is novel that stays with reader. It leaves you with deep, lingering horror.