ireland

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall

For the past few weeks, I have been staying on the West Coast of Ireland. It is rural, full peculiar cows that like to stare you in the eye and follow you around as you trek across ancient fields to check out Medieval ruined abbeys. It is green and [uncharacteristically] sunny, but some days, still filled with rolling fog atop the mountains. It has certainly put me in the mood for spooks. (If you care to see some photos, stick around till the end for some of my snaps.)

Although Wylding Hall is not set in Ireland, but the English countryside, it certainly was quite a read!

In 1972, a British acid-folk band is carted off by their manager to a remote ancient house to record their next album. The band already suffered one strange occurrence–the ambiguous death of the lead singer’s girlfriend (and former band mate). Of course, when they are at Wylding Hall, there are strange happenings, creepy birds, and lurking presences. Finally, the lead singer mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead after he never reappeared.

The novella is told through interconnected first person interviews: it is present day and a documentary filmmaker is interviewing the band and others involved about the time surrounding the stay at Wylding Hall and the lead singer’s disappearance.

This structure delights my fondness for books written in epistles. Yes, interviews aren’t letters, but in the novella they do give that reading experience. Also, everyone’s experience at Wylding Hall was completely different and when they are commenting on similar moments, there are little tweaks in the perception. Everyone is inherently an unreliable narrator and the question of who to believe is always simmering.

Elizabeth Hand is a writer I’ve been meaning to dip into forever, and I totally dug this book. I read it in a few sittings, quickly flipping pages, as the Gothic atmosphere tinged the entire narrative. Wylding Hall also won a 2015 Shirley Jackson Award.

With the landscape so haunted, I am in search of more spooky tales. I am off to Dublin soon after spending weeks in the country, and I’m curious what hauntings city-life will bring.

Has anyone else read Elizabeth Hand? She is quite prolific. Wylding Hall is easily affordable at $3.82 on Amazon.

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The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

The Devil I Know

“Everyone thinks you’re dead, son, I may as well tell you now.”

No, that’s the other Tristram St. Lawrence.

Kinship to Tristram Shandy is hard to avoid in Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, a deliberate satire of the Irish housing boom from not so long ago. In both real life and the world of the novel, financial bloat and lack of responsibility lead to devastating ruin. However, the novel itself is more concerned with the lead up. It’s conceit is that it is told in the year 2016 during a mysterious deposition of Tristram St. Lawrence, a recovering alcoholic and broken noble who most assumed dead for one reason or another and the lynchpin to some airy real estate scheme in his hometown.

Much like Sterne’s eponymous character, St. Lawrence is unable to easily explain his situation and instead tells a convoluted tale about his business dealings with a childhood friend, Desmond Hickey, and the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, whose identity becomes quite obvious as the narrative goes forward and onto its final pages.

St. Lawrence begins his story with his airplane being diverted to Dublin and, much to his dismay, he is now stuck in Ireland. He hasn’t returned to his home for years, even missing his own mother’s funeral, letting his ancestral home and his elderly father fall apart. A recovering alcoholic, it’s Kismet when he meets up with an old school peer in a bar and what proceeds is an ever-growing scheme to build, build, build.

The Devil I Know does that wonderful thing where it has the ability of leaving the reader in a narrative purgatory (pardon the pun). You’re never quite sure what’s happening to Tristram St. Lawrence. Everyone in his hometown, including Desmond Hickey, keep repeating the fact that they all thought he was dead, which gave my readerly brain slight tingles thinking about Flann O’Brien. St. Lawrence keeps insisting that that was the other Tristram St. Lawrence. Also, the absent M. Deauville, whose page time is mostly conducted over a phone call with the narrator is in a word intriguing even as his identity becomes both clear and more difficult by the novel’s end.

St. Lawrence is a classic unreliable narrator. His deposition can easily be picked apart and nothing that St. Lawrence actually says is concrete. Here, however, is where the novel feels thin. Clearly, a deal with the devil is occurring; one that the narrator can never escape. Kilroy is lampooning Ireland’s financial bust through this idea, one that I think is clever in general and also poignant for a country filled with folklore.

Yet, the Faustian plot was pulled for too long. Sometimes, as I was reading, the narrative suffered from not having any sort of tension. You would think such a pact would elicit more salacious doings and undoings. Yes, St. Lawrence is secretive and his flamboyant testimony hides the real deeds underneath, but not enough of it poked out.

Kilroy’s satire and tongue-in-cheek were an interesting route to present Ireland’s bust, but it wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel. This was a tricky one. I enjoyed much of it and the teetering concept of real and imagined was an exciting element, yet, these factors, perhaps, were not enough to keep the novel on sturdy legs.

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