Emma Seckel: The Wild Hunt (2022) | featured image

Debut Novel ‘The Wild Hunt’ Sets a Celtic Legend on the Loose

The uncontrollable violence of the natural and the supernatural in Celtic Legend take to the wing in Emma Seckel’s debut novel The Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt
Emma Seckel
Tin House
August 2022

In Emma Seckel’s debut novel, The Wild Hunt, the crows return in vast numbers every October for exactly one month. The novel is set in the immediate wake of the Second World War’s death and destruction, on a fog-bound Scottish coastal island where ancient Celtic traditions are still honored by the inhabitants.

 As The Wild Hunt opens, the crows have just returned, but this time with a vengeance, with an especially bloody bone to pick with the islanders. This is not Capistrano, and these are not swallows. However, a reader who expects to be settling into a thoroughly edgy tale, à la Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, will find something else. In the end, while there certainly is a mystery afoot, complete with pitch-black watery caves and haunting voices and sightings, this tale evolves into a romance novel, albeit wrapped in the cloak of violent Celtic legend. 

Protagonist Leigh Welles had taken the untrodden path of leaving the island for the mainland and a better life, but she has returned to witness the launch of the traditional burning-boat-on-the-waters funeral of her father and stays on due to her failure to launch a successful life on the mainland. The war, but not its legacy of misery, has just ended. The returned soldiers pointedly refuse to talk about what they witnessed, including the liberation of the concentration camps when girlfriends press them on this point. Overly dramatic and extended arguments ensue, generating plot points throughout the narrative. 

The expected return of the crows has occurred but this time around, they are exceptionally violent. The crows are the Sluagh (SLOO-ah) of ancient Celtic legend, bird-like entities that carry off the anguished souls of the dead (which, in the war’s wake, are many). The Sluagh are attacking islanders walking on the street and infesting and destroying their homes. When a character kills one of the Sluagh during a Celtic ceremony and disappears, the remaining crows initiate all-out warfare.

One returning veteran is Iain MacTavish, with whom Leigh comes to have a turbulent relationship. Throughout the Sluagh mayhem, Leigh and Iain come together in search of their missing friend and break apart periodically. The expected sexual tension ensues waxing and waning, leading to a plot climax that might appear to take magical realism or speculative fiction, or something of the sort, to the limit.

It is a flaw that this climactic scene is apt to seem ridiculous if the reader is without the benefit of certain background knowledge of the Sluagh legend. The author does not lay the foundation for this climactic scene by explaining at some point earlier in the story, through deft writing that does not give the game away, that events such as are portrayed in the scene are themselves solidly part of the legend. Without this foreknowledge, the high point of the plot seems like magical realism gone silly.  

Apart from this flaw, The Wild Hunt is well-constructed and readable, with an engaging storyline, albeit somewhat old-fashioned and, despite the mysteries and violence of the Sluagh, comfortable). Seckel’s well-wrought characters interact in a rich and interesting setting.  

As noted, The Wild Hunt incorporates a varied and complex Celtic legend. Sluagh are often viewed as creatures that, in some versions, are composed of the souls of the dead. The Sluagh themselves, in the varying legends of many northern European countries, including Ireland and Scotland, take varied forms, sometimes birds, insects, or even fairies. 

This legend is also entwined with the legend of the titular ‘wild hunt’, in which a lead hunter-spirit followed by its overwhelming army of myriad hunter-spirits fly through the frigid night sky, capturing the souls of humans. There are said to be various modes of protection against the Sluagh, including hanging charms and boarding up west-facing windows. Finally, and perhaps most counterintuitively, the Sluagh are said to save humans tumbling off clifftops by swarming them and breaking their fall. Readers will find all of these aspects of the legend within the novel.

While the many intriguing elements of this novel are subsumed within a rather standard romantic plot, The Wild Hunt provides readers with the opportunity to become acquainted with this rich and complex ancient legend that, in its varied forms, is common to many countries. Seckel serves up a well-written romance intertwined with fantastical elements of a legend not widely known. The value of this debut novel lies in this unusual and imaginative combination of the uncontrollable violence of the natural and the supernatural layered over a comfortable core narrative.

RATING 8 / 10
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