|The Rev Merrily Watkins
(creator: Phil Rickman)
The Rev Merrily (what a magnificent name!) Watkins had suddenly been widowed when her crooked lawyer husband had been killed in a UK motorway crash, leaving her with a teenage daughter, Jane. She'd already enrolled at a theology college, although she "spent whole nights fuming about some of the crap they threw at you". She then worked as a curate in a tough forsaken area of Liverpool before coming, as priest-in-charge, to Lewardine, a country parish in Herefordshire. She later became a Deliverance Minister, concerned with evil spirits and exorcisms.
Merrily herself is described as a "very pretty" 36-year-old, and "a small dark-haired person". Or, as one of her more lustful churchwardens put it, she was a "little dolly of of a clergyperson ... nice legs, dinky titties". According to her daughter, she "smoked like a chimney". Merrily and her daughter both seem very aware, and frightened, of a strange supernatural world, just around the corner. It is this that that gives these books their edge - and every now and then takes them right over the top.
Phil Rickman began as a journalist, working in newspapers and then as a radio and TV reporter for BBC Wales, where he presents the book programme, Phil the Shelf, for BBC Radio Wales. His first books were supernatural thrillers, then he began his Merrily Watkins series, which he describes as "crime and mystery with spiritual and paranormal undertones".He also writes under the names of Will Kingdom and (for children's books) Thom Madley. He lives with his wife Carol in a medieval farmhouse on the Welsh Border.
The Wine of Angels (1998)
Shades of Rickman's previous horror books still recur: it can all get very sinister, and you are never quite sure whether the odd thumps in the night and visions of the past are really happening or are just dreams. Even at Merrily's installation by the bishop, she "shivered as, for wild glowing moments, the walls of the church seemed to curve together, the pews warping, the congregation coalescing, faces blending into pink pulp" before "she fell forward into her own thin vomit". Then there's a local suicide in a haunted orchard, a bitter dispute about Wil Williams (an odd, possibly homosexual, 17th century cleric who'd been accused of witchcraft and had committed suicide), and the sudden disappearance of Jane's new friend, precocious 16 year old Colette, and another murder. So there's plenty going on, and it all manages to hold the interest, despite the author's unnecessarily disjointed style which leads him to follow one character up to a exciting moment then immediately cut away to another character, so as to keep us hooked. This is a perfecty legitimate device, but Rickman overdoes it.
However, it's a very refreshingly unsentimental view of village life, with neither the incomers or the oldtimers emerging unscathed. And it seems that Merrily herself may have the potential to develop into a really interesting character.
Midwinter of the Spirit (1999)
In some ways Merrily's 16 year old daughter Jane seems more interesting, and more real, than Merrily herself. She gets swept up in a wave of New Age mystical ideas and quarrels with her mother: "Although Jane was basically spiritual, she just didn't believe that the Church of England was. Bad enough to have your own mother walking around in a dog-collar, never mind the holy water and the black bag now". But, as Merrily realises, "nothing about Jane was ever really simple", and her eventual reconciliation with her mother is one of the more human moments in the book. And Jane's wicked lying girl-friend Rowenna (who had previously seduced not one, not two, but three cathedral canons of Salisbury Cathedral, and even bribes the Boy Bishop to do the evil she wants by providing him with oral sex in the crypt right in the middle of his interrupted installation service) is certainly a formidable character. So, despite its improbabilities and longwindedness, it all makes quite a lively read.
A Crown of Lights (2001)
There is a plan to stage pagan festivals in the old church that meets strong opposition from the Rev Nick Ellis, a popular, if sinister, evangelist who has built up a strong following in the district. Merrily Watkins, as Diocesan Deliverance Officer, is asked to keep an eye on things. Violence breaks out, and quite a gripping story emerges. It is left to Merrily to work out what is really going on behind the scenes.
The author keeps things going at a fair pace, and includes some good set pieces, as in the lively confrontation between Merrily and various witches in a Midlands TV studio, but the narrative still jumps predictably around from one set of characters to another when anything really dramatic happens. So when Jane gets involved in a motorway accident and the chapter ends: "Jane actually turned in time to see it, the monster with many eyes, before it reared and snarled and crushed them", you can bet your bottom dollar that the next chapter starts with something quite unconnected to this, such as "Gareth Prosser was loading hay ...", and so it does.
However, the story holds the interest, and characters like Robin and Betty, and Gomer Parry Plant Hire, Merrily's helper, are treated very sympathetically and come across as real people, as do Merrily herself and her daughter Jane, although Merrily's prayer life seems to revolve around Christ be with us, Christ within us, Christ behind us - but perhaps that's because she only seems to pray when thoroughly scared - which, as it happens, is quite often.
It's all very well researched, though. The author has really looked into established Deliverance procedure: "You didn't even contemplate exorcism until all the other possibilities, usually psychiatric, had been eliminated". He even claims that "most of the stranger aspects of this novel are based (as closely as the law and the laws of fiction allow) on fact". You'd think that wicca and witchcraft, not to mention demons and hauntings, were to be found around every corner. Read enough Phil Rickman, and you might become convinced they are.
The Cure of Souls (2001)
Merrily, 37 now, is sent by the bishop to Herefordshire's hop growing country where a converted kiln (with a foul sulphurous smell - real or imaginary?) was the scene of a grisly murder. Then Amy Shelbone, a girl, brought up in strict evangelical ways, is violently sick in the middle of taking communion, and Merrily realises that this was "something that needed to be looked into". The local vicar, her boyfriend Lol Robinson (who is a "palely sensitive singer-songwriter ... unlucky in love, survivor of a nervous breakdown and some years of psychiatric treatment"), Merrily's daughter Jane, and Jane's new schoolfriend friend, wicked Layla Riddock (Jane really does seem extraordinarily unlucky in her girlfriends), get involved in really weird goings-on. Even Amy, desperate to get in touch with her dead mother, turns out to be a talented medium. But in between the hauntings, 16 year old Jane's love affair with her Welsh boyfriend Eirann (whom she persists in calling Irene) slowly develops, and both these characters are treated with real sensitivity and understanding.
Merrily herself comes across as a more developed character too. We discover more about her prayer life: "She'd long ago given up trying to visualize God. There was no He or She. When I pray, I don't see a man. Or a woman. I just experience - it started out as imagination but now it truly exists - a warmth and a light and a great core ... what you'd describe, I suppose, as endless, selfless love. Which asks for nothing in return, but an acceptance of it ... which is faith."
It seems unlikely that old Hugh Owen, her deliverance tutor and spiritual director, advises her to spin a favourite coin to find God's answers to her questions. Even she finds this odd, but is told, "I've done it a few times. It's always worked - as far as I could tell. It either tells you what you already knew, or it tells you to think again. And once you start thinking again, you find some new angle you hadn't noticed and that's the way ahead". So she tries it, and has her conclusions about Amy confirmed: "nothing demonic ... no possession by an unquiet spirit".
The story ends in a way that is certainly surprising, if not very convincing. The borderline between what is really scary and what is plain silly in these books is always rather hard to draw - but the character of Merrily Walkins becomes increasingly interesting. If only she could spend a little more time in the real world with people who are not quite so easily "possessed".
The Lamp of the Wicked (2003)
The Rev Merrily Watkins, her daughter Jane, and her on-and-off lover Lol Robinson (who makes a comeback as a singer) are all involved. So, unfortunately is the satanic influence of the real-life, although now dead, sadistic serial killer, Fred West. It seems odd to combine someone who was all too real with fictitious characters, but, as the author points out, "Frankly, this was not exactly an easy book to write, and I relied throughout on the judgment and penetrating editorial skills of my wife Carol, who spent many weeks disentangling it and pulling me back from the brink of excess". But although there is a welcome subtler use of the supernatural than in previous books, the description of West's satanic influence is not really very convincing.
The clergy in this book seem to enjoy a greater sexual freedom than might have been supposed. As Huw Owen, her spiritual director, tells Merrily, "These are the days of sex-change clergy, transvestite clergy, bondage clergy, cocaine clergy. I'd say, as long as it doesn't involve Alsatian dogs ..." I wonder how many real vicars would go along with this.
Merrily does not seem to grow any more sure of herself: " I've only had the job (of deliverance consultant) for just over a year. I've never encountered a .... confirmable case of demonic possession", although she still believes it can happen. She delivers a sermon on angels although "she hadn't had time to prepare this properly" and thinks it may only have have told her congregation that "this vicar hadn't yet worked out where she stood on angels". She gets more and more disturbed, even having a dreadful dream that daughter Jane herself had become one of Fred West's victims. Sometimes "this game of Deliverance, the whole of religion, seemed too full of holes and traps to be worth the candle". Then when friendly Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss (who is also having more than his fair share of troubles) asks her, "Don't you sometimes feel ... that there's a wider plan. and it isn't always constructed by somebody with our best interests at heart?", she can only reply uncomfortably, "I don't get paid to feel that".
The Prayer of the Night Shepherd (2004)
The emphasis in the story is more on Jane than on her mother, the Rev Merrily Watkins, but the author's attempt to hold the reader's interest over 629 pages by repeatedly, at times almost frantically, cutting from one group of characters to another whenever anything exciting seems likely to happen, gets not only increasingly tiresome but confusing too. And it often ends in anti-climax. The writer has used this technique in previous books, but not quite to such an extent. There is some sporadic dramatic action but you have to wait for it. There are the usual ghostly appearances etc and, for once, Merrily admits that "deliverance work had been separating her too often from her parish, from the day-to-day cure of souls" but the emphasis is still elsewhere and some of the other characters really aren't all that interesting.
The book, which is illustrated by five not all that special photographs, includes an explanation that the Conan Doyle theory was founded on fully documented research arising out of a radio programme that Rickman had written and presented. But it remains one of the weaker stories in the series.
The Smile of a Ghost (2005)
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Ludlow which "had always been prosperous, but it had real wealth now, all these poncy-voiced bastards moving up from London with their silver knives and forks". That at least was how Mumford saw it.
Merrily's work as a priest is treated with increasing realism. "Sermons," she thinks, "every week another one hanging around your neck like a penance, supporting the traditional assumption, from the days when the priest was the only person in the village who could read, that you could stand up there in the pulpit having universal truths channelled through, when all you really had were questions". She and her daughter Jane, aged 17, come across as increasingly interesting and realistic people.
The story is illustrated by a few photos of Ludlow and the castle. They aren't really all that good and they aren't reproduced all that well, but they add a new dimension to the description of the town, a place for which the author obviously feels real affection. Interestingly, he explains that the real owners of the castle "inadvertently supplied an interesting plot strand by refusing to help and suggesting that I change the location". This was their mistake, as Rickman has a real sense of place and does it proud - even if he concentrates on terrible things that have happened there. However, the supernatural goings-on are more restrained than in some of the earlier books, and this makes them all the more credible. Recommended as the best book in the series so far.
The Remains of an Altar (2006)
Meanwhile Merrily's 17-year-old daughter Jane gets involved in arguments about ley lines, inspired by the writing of the (real-life) Alfred Watkins, and finds herself in trouble for trying to block a plan to turn a ley line area into "an estate of twenty-four high quality detached executive homes". She is in trouble at school too, especially when she gets The Guardian newspaper involved in her ley line arguments.
It's a pity that Merrily is too busy to spend much time with her daughter, or even talk to her. It is her lover Lol who helps her with her investigations. Some of the other characters (like Gomer of Gomer Parry Plant Hire) are starting to seem less interesting, and ex-SAS man, now The Rev Sidney Spicer, sounds quite unreal when he suddenly reverts to being an all-action hero.
The most significant characters are Merrily and Jane, whose relationship is well observed: "Two years ago, the sight of Mum kneeling to pray would have Jane shrivelling up inside with embarrassment and resentment. But now she was older and Mum was also more balanced, a lot less rigid." But she wishes her mother would stop calling her "Flower".
Merrily still serves as a rather unlikely Deliverance Consultant. When asked by Syd Spicer, "You ever done an exorcism?", she replies, "Minor exorcism, mainly - Requiem Eucharist for the unquiet dead, variations on that. Never had to stop a small child abusing herself with a crucifix, never been sprayed with green bile. Although, naturally, I live in hope." She has to joke about it, because she is all too conscious that "a recent survey had shown that more people in Britain believed in ghosts than in God. Whereas parish priests still tended to believe in some kind of God but often had a problem with ghosts. Even more of a problem with exorcism, last refuge of anachronistic misfits in the desperately modern C of E." As her spiritual director had warned her. "Ordained women were becoming the prime target for every psychotic grinder of their satanic mills who ever sacrificed a chicken. Therefore a woman exorcist might as well paint a big bull's eye between her ... on her chest."
Merrily's own religious convictions do not grow more profound: "It had been Merrily's plan to go into her own church before lunch, when it was quietest. Find a cool place in the chancel and lay all this out, the whole Wychehill mess. To ask the question, Is it time to leave this alone, walk away? An in-depth exhange with the Management on this issue was long, long overdue, So what was she doing in Lol's bed? 'Oh hell ...' she gazed into his unshaven face. 'This is a bit like adultery... cheating on the Church. The parish. Sorry. All I need is to offend you, and that's virtually nobody left still speaking to me ... I'm not getting anything right, am I? I'm a lousy mother, a lousy girlfriend, an inept exorcist and an incompetent parish priest.' "
The author himself seems at his happiest when describing ghostly goings-on: the ghost of Elgar, as one woman described him, complete with beard, bicycle, the smell of sweat and tobacco, thoughts that could be felt ("not what he was thinking, exactly. It was more the colour of his thoughts. The texture. The feeling of his thoughts") and an earthly chuckle. It was this woman who "quite reasonably, didn't want it put around that she'd been touched up, from the other side of the grave, by England's most distinguished composer".
Or there's a great old oak tree,"venerated," as Merrily says. "Still. On a serious scale." There were "offerings. Ribbons tied to twigs, fragments of coloured cloth, foil, labels with handwritten messages, flowers, balls of wool .... small sacrifices. People were still coming here - now - to make small sacrifices. Immense in the muddied light, the oak represented an everyday, naked paganism." All this is made more real than the way Merrily "felt reduced and dirty and a long and twisted way from God".
The real problem with the book, though, lies in its length, Although, as usual, the story gets off to a good start, it is told at a leisurely pace, and there is a lot of jumping around from one character to another. There is not really enough exciting action to sustain the interest for over 500 pages.
The Fabric of Sin (2007)
Warned off when her inquiries stumble into secret forbidden areas, uncovering modern-day Masonic links, Merrily, her daughter Jane and lover Lol Robinson (the returning-to-favour song-writer/guitarist), have to face up to various dangers before the villain is finally unmasked. But Jane, having largely outgrown her adolescent angst, has broken with her boyfriend Eirion for no very good reason, and does not seem as interesting a character as she used to be.
Merrily's religious faith is still far from certain. When asked if she is High Church and an Anglo-Catholic, she replies, "Oh, well. I've never been one for labels. You adapt ... compromise where you can". It's a question of "mix-'n-match. Pick your own. Anything works now, in the new, flexible C of E." But confronted with possible emanations of evil, she seems strangely credulous. As for her basic beliefs, "Every day it gets harder to answer that persistent, nagging question: If there is a God, why does he allow so much suffering? Well, my children, the truth - the bottom line, heartfelt truth - is, I'm buggered if I know."
The over-extended plot, with its various references to The Man (Prince Charles), is not all that gripping. As owner of the Duchy of Cornwall, now expanding into Herefordshire, is he aware of what is going on? "He'd probably be fascinated," says Lol. "Has his other-worldly side."
It all gets rather gossipy, as when Merrily's spiritual adviser, old Huw Owen, tells her: "Some of our masters, as you know, have become a bit wary about a certain individual."
The author finds room too to quote from Prince Charles' speech to the British Medical Association, of which he had just been appointed President. He tells them that "Throughout the centuries, healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom that sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient's body but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos. I would suggest that the whole impossible edifice of modern medicine, for all its breathtaking successes, is, like the tower of Pisa, slightly off-balance." Not at all what the BMA ("the conservative and seriously cautious organization representing doctors in the UK") really wanted to hear! This is not really very relevant to the plot - but the plot, unfortunately, is rather less interesting.
There are some lively characters such as Mrs Morningside, the herbalist, who gets raped but is strangely reluctant to tell anyone about it, but whose reflexolgy treatment (that she had "picked up in London") works for Merrily. And there are historical figures like Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars, who had been burned at the stake, who had once visited Garway. And there is The Rev Canon Sian Callagan-Clarke who turns out to be rather different from the arch-enemy that Merrily had supposed her to be, but who has been asked to advise on Merrily's future as a delivery consultant.
There are some amusing comments as when a silver car is described as "one of those hybrid jobs that ran partly on urine or something, cost an arm and a leg but the driver was guaranteed a martyr's welcome in eco-paradise". And theTemplars/masons backgroynd is certainly of interest, but the book just goes on too long.
To Dream of the Dead (2008)
But why does his wife seem so disturbed? It is she who warns Merrily that her husband is on the lookout for new material and "might even have to fall back on the story of how he wound up in a crazy village with a priest who doubles as diocesan exorcist while her daughter follows ley lines and worships old gods." And that just about sums up the place!
It is only a few days before Christmas when the police in Hereford discover a severed head looking out from a gothic window in a little tower that is part of a preaching cross. They find that there is a link to the unearthing of the Dinedor Serpent, a unique prehistoric ritual monument threatened by a new road. Meanwhile in Ledwardine itself, a team led by a controversial TV archaeologist is uncovering the buried Bronze Age stones of Coleman's Meadow, an exciting time for Merrily's teenage daughter Jane.
It is 18-year-old Jane, whose ambition to become an archaeologist seems likely to be thwarted by a TV interview in which she is made to look a fool, who emerges again as a much more interesting and real character than her mother, Merrily. Merrily herself still does not make a very convincing priest, and seems quite happy to explain to a congregation during a Christmas morning service that she "may have to pop out" to help the police. Jane still goes off to the churchyard to talk to the dead mystic, Lucy Devenish, but you can still empathise with her, even if, as her mother well knows, "she was wearing, next to her skin, a fine silver necklace with a pentacle hanging from it".
As the author explains on his website, these books get increasingly hard to write: "Every series writer will tell you that. Plausibility is the central issue. And avoiding becoming formulaic." He tries to get around this by shifting the emphasis to different characters (in this story he allows Detective Inspector Francis Bliss to play a much bigger part. He comes to life as a real person, and this works quite well), and by revealing new facets of other characters. So the so-called Ice Maiden, Bliss's boss, the aggressive Acting Detective Superintendent Annie Howe, turns out to be much nicer when you really get to know her up. This is far from convincing.
The problem remains, however. This is the 10th book in the series and although individual characters, and the Herefordshire setting, are still of some interest, there is a limit to how long you can go on remixing the same ingredients. And the books not only continue to be very long, but the author still struggles to maintain interest by overdoing the cutting away from potentially exciting action at the end of one chapter to other characters doing something entirely different at the start of the next. For example, he does this in quick succession on pages 384, 387, 396 and 411. Indeed he sometimes does it even within chapters. After a time, this reads too much like an author's trick and gets increasingly annoying for the reader. It makes everything seem to move very slowly.
The Secrets of Pain (2011)
The Rev Merrily Watkins has little, if any, time left, it seems, for her more conventional religious duties (even over Easter she arranges for most of her "routine services" of to be taken by someone else!). She prefers to join the investigators, along with her 18-year-daughter Jane, who is still more interested in the country's pagan past than in her mother's religious beliefs. It is Jane who cut open an apple “to reveal the pale green pentagram at its heart. She stood in the silence, expanding the apple pentagram in her mind until she was standing in the middle of it, watching it widen and become a white golden aura, eventually enclosing the whole of Ledwardine. And then Jane prayed to the godless, to become a channel for the cosmic energy which would make things happen." She subsequently goes missing, having goon to unlikely lengths, risking rape and murder in her determination to unmask the cockfighters. It is her captor who “looked demonic in a ravaged kind of way, with his sagging, fleshy mouth, his hair spiked with sweat. Like a big puppet, some mindless voodoo doll being worked by someone else." It just doesn't seem real.
As before, the author jumps around from one location to another but the sheer length of the book (as many as 576 pages, even if the type is quite large) makes it very difficult to hold the interest throughout, and, indeed, I sometimes found I had even forgotten who some of the characters were - and did not always care.
Merrily herself plays a rather less significant role than previously, and you get the feeling that even the author may be losing interest in her. As he freely admits, "I never really wanted to write about a vicar". I'm afraid it is a series that has seen better days.
|The first book in the series was originally described as a ghost story as it followed on from five previous books that had all been supernatural thrillers.|
|Later paperback versions were more correctly classified under crime and mystery.|
|This Macmillan hardback is particularly handsomely produced in an unusual smart white binding.