Emma Seckel expertly conjures the eerie beauty within the liminal spaces of nature and collective consciousness in her historical fiction novel The Wild Hunt. The story is both a haunting mythology and an exploration of human emotion as Seckel is able to capture the communal trauma and grief these characters experience following World War II. The characters struggle to process the loss of friends and family, but the dead in this story walk into the abyss dispassionately, without ceremony, and most frequently alone. Through these solitary spaces, Seckel is able to illustrate the mundanity of death while introducing something otherworldly as the text leans further into the mythology of lost souls.
The story follows Leigh Welles as she returns to her childhood home on a remote island off the coast of Scotland after her father’s death. Her return is also marked by the seasonal, supernatural onslaught of the “slaugh.” They come every October and “they look like crows, but they carry the dead’s souls.” This illustrates that the crows are a not so thinly veiled metaphor for the islanders’ dead as nearly a generation of young men were lost fighting in the war. While Leigh’s brother, Sam survived the war, he didn’t come home, choosing to remain on the mainland where Leigh followed soon after. Leigh’s own flight to the mainland was less than glamorous as she failed to make something of herself as she’d planned. Her return to the familiarity of the island was almost a relief, but beyond the picturesque, wild beauty of the land and timelessness of the town, Leigh finds that the town faces a harsher reality than the one she left.
The story picks up with the disappearance of Leigh’s young friend, Hugo McClaire. Even after everyone preemptively drops the search, Leigh and RAF veteran, Iain McTavish aren’t convinced that the island is big enough for anyone to just vanish. But “people didn’t disappear without a trace except for when they did,” and Leigh was all too familiar with this as her mother vanished from the island when she was a child. While Hugo’s disappearance is one of the main devices driving the plot, Seckel also uses this along with the slaugh’s increasing presence and boldness to build on the supernatural aspects of the story as the spirits of the lost souls begin to manifest, making the islanders and the reader questioning their reality.
The mythology and island rituals around the slaugh feels like classic smalltown folklore and gives the novel a real supernatural tension as Leigh and the islanders are pushed to the breaking point. At the first ritual, Leigh notes that she wondered if “the bonfires and rituals and the Gaelic would still hold their magic for her” after being away from the island, but it’s easy to believe in the otherworldliness of the crows when sheep turned up dead, people are attacked unprovoked, and when the crows invade barns and homes forcing out the human tenants. And even after time away, Leigh finds that “if she stood and let the Gaelic wash over her like a tide it was easy to believe this part too: the masks, the fire, the chanting. The terrible magic of this island. In the blinding fiery light, she felt oddly untethered from her body as though her mind had been cut loose and she was watching all of this from afar as though it were all a strange hallucination a fever dream.” Through the island rituals, Seckel is able to capture the ways in which the communal consciousness fuels the perceived protection against the slaugh, but it also illustrates the community’s stagnant state of grief as they struggle to move past the war and mourn those who died so far from home.
Throughout the novel Seckel masterfully blends the past and present without relying on excessive backstory. There’s a stylistic intentionality to this as there’s almost an absent space where the war should be. Although it’s the central context of the character’s trauma, it’s also the one thing no one can bear to speak about. So, like the dead, the war takes on its own metaphorical phantom presence in the islander’s lives. Because it is not bogged down by the historical context, the text is able play with genre. As the plot progresses, the genre pivots from historical fiction to subgenres of mystery, and speculative fiction as Leigh and Iain explore the island’s secret places and dig deeper into the meaning behind the onslaught of slaugh. Yet even at the peak of the book’s supernatural moments, Seckel reigns the narrative back in because, overall, this is a story driven by character and emotional development. And rather than focusing on the supernatural elements, the novel takes its time to give the characters and the reader fully developed moments of catharsis.
Seckel’s writing is vivid and transports the reader to the moors and rocky cliffs with crows swarming overhead. The text is rich with emotion and stands out among other post-WWII era historical fiction novels as it highlights the experience of those left behind rather than the war itself.
The Wild Hunt
By Emma Seckel
Tin House Books
Published August 2, 2022