— The Wild Hunt, by Emma Seckel, Tin House (2022)
The Wild Hunt, a debut novel by Emma Seckel, is a ghost story of the very best kind, reflecting our own experiences in which we never quite know if the ghosts are real or conjured up by ourselves in the throes of our own heartaches.
The novel is set in the aftermath of WWII, on a remote Scottish island “as far north as one could get before there was nothing but sea.” It is intensely atmospheric, with moody prose that sets up the island as a character in itself. Take the following description:
“The light trickled over the island slowly. It brushed against the ruined church spire and dripped down to the memorial, reaching into the crevices of the names writ therein. It poked through curtains and shutters to creep along countertops and kiss sleeping foreheads. It ran along the high street, knocked on the door, danced over the boats in the harbor, and made a sprint up the hill away from the village. It ricocheted through the fields and through the trees, paused reverently at the standing stones, rocketed up to the ancient cathedral where the seagulls swooped, keening.”
Seckel’s writing is deeply evocative and instantly immersive without ever veering into “purple prose.” She is especially adept at describing how the island pushes its human inhabitants away and draws them back in a constant drama, just like people in relationships, or like the always-shifting weight of memories.
As the novel opens, the seasons are changing. It is a time of liminality, as “the border between this world and the next grew thin each autumn. A doorway opening, easy to fall through accidentally if one wasn’t careful.” More importantly, it is October, the time of the crows — the sluagh — rumored to be the lost souls of the dead trying to find the next world. October was different during the war; even more so after. Now, the sluagh stalk the island in increasingly large numbers, invading homes and attacking people — sometimes even leaving them for dead. But the question is, why have the sluagh changed? Why are none of the old superstitions working to keep them in check? And why now?
While the sluagh are impossible to ignore, the same cannot be said of the war. Despite their own personal losses, the islanders refuse to talk about it or erect any kind of memorial. In fact, the windows are still lined with peeling blackout paper and war propaganda posters. Into this collective amnesia steps Leigh Welles, one of the few young people who left the island for something other than the fight against Germany. But her life in Edinburgh has been nothing but a disappointment, and when her father dies, she returns to the empty family farm with seemingly no purpose. She feels alone in the world, except for her once-beloved brother Sam — a man who helped liberate Dachau, but now seems to hate her for reasons she cannot understand — and a widowed RAF pilot named Iain.
Although they had wildly different experiences of the war, all three must reckon with their own ambivalence about it. Because the war was not only universal, but deeply personal. Did how they lived their lives during those years make any difference at all? Should they feel guilty for having survived, or relieved? And what do their choices say about their responsibility to the dead? Leigh, Sam, and Iain are haunted for different reasons, but it is in trying to reckon with the violence of the island’s sluagh that they will be forced to exorcize their very own ghosts.
As Leigh soon realizes, they must come to terms with “all the ways the island had been battered and bruised and forced to change since the simple hazy days of childhood, the days when they still had summertime in them.” The sluagh reflect the islanders’ own tortured process of growing up, of learning to love and suffer and let go all at the same time. They cannot gain control over the sluagh until they make a choice: how to let themselves live, while letting those they have loved and lost finally be dead. A choice about whether or not to be in this world, as it really is.
Review by: Danielle Johnson. Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson