Phil Rickman is an author who should be better known in the United States, because his books are terrific.
I used to work at a large Borders Books, and one day I was shelving books in the mystery section. Now, I love mysteries, but reading them is like eating potato chips. You can’t stick to just one, or even a few, but after you’ve finished, you feel kind of guilty and not very well nourished. Still, I’m always searching for a good one to sink my teeth into. Anyway, I recognized the picture on the cover of one of the books I was putting away. (“Hey, I’ve been to that town!”) It was Ludlow, Shropshire, on the Welsh border. The book was by Phil Rickman, and it was the seventh in the Merrily Watkins Mystery series. The description sounded intriguing, but I like to start at the beginning, so I bought a copy of Midwinter of the Spirit. I thought it was the first in the series, but I was wrong. The Wine of Angels is actually the first title. It didn’t matter. I was hooked from the first page, and Midwinter is a better book than the first one. I tore through the series, and then I came to the part I hate, where I have to wait a year or more for new books in a series to be released. It’s even worse when it’s a British author, since the UK gets the books months before we do, and I have to decide whether to pay extra to get them sooner or to just wait.
Merrily Watkins is a young widow who’s just become an Anglican priest. She moves to the English/Welsh border with her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, becoming the parish priest in the small village of Ledwardine. Her encounters with a restless spirit in the old vicarage lead to her appointment as “deliverance consultant” for the diocese of Hereford, which is just a newfangled term for exorcist.
Now, this could lead to standard horror or to silly supernatural stuff, but Rickman is too smart and too subtle to let that happen. You won’t find any teenage vampires or rabid zombies wandering through these pages. Instead, the paranormal elements are just spooky enough to send shivers down your spine but always rooted in human emotion and human (dare I say it?) evil. Rickman always lets the reader decide whether to believe in God and Church and Religion, whether to believe in ghosts and hauntings, whether to believe in witches and ley lines and ancient pagan rituals. Nothing is dismissed and nothing is assumed.
What keeps me coming back, though, are the characters. My favorite is Gomer Parry, because you can’t help admiring an old fellow who’s so passionate about his JCB. That’s a big digging machine, and Gomer is never happier than when he’s digging a ditch or working on a septic tank. You’d be surprised how useful a guy like Gomer can be in a supernatural mystery. Another favorite is Lol Robinson, a timid musician who spent time in a mental hospital. His gradual blossoming as a performer and his romance with Merrily never fails to delight me.
One of the richest and funniest characters is Merrily’s daughter Jane. She’s sixteen, and like every teenager, she truly believes she knows more than her mother. She’s smart and passionate, but she’s also terribly impressionable. Her fascination with paganism and witchcraft is obviously a reaction to her mother’s traditional religion. It’s fun to watch Jane grow up, grow wiser, fall in and out of love, and gradually learn that her mother may know a thing or two.
Once you’ve read all the Merrily Watkins books, while you’re waiting for another one (and the eleventh title The Secrets of Pain will be released September 1, 2011 in the UK), you’ll want to read more of Rickman’s work. His first two books are Crybbe (also called Curfew) and Candlenight, and they’re traditional horror novels that are just average (and I know I’m going to get some arguments about that from other Rickman fans!) I’ve tried and failed to make it through his third novel, The Man in the Moss, but I will probably keep trying. Rickman hits his stride with December. It’s delicious and probably my favorite non-series book by Rickman, about a group of psychic musicians recording an album in an old abbey. Rickman has a lovely habit of introducing characters in his early books that are so vivid, they keep popping up in Rickman’s later works, like old friends dropping by for a visit.
But wait, there’s more. Phil Rickman has written two books under the name Will Kingdom and two children’s books as Thom Madley. His latest book is The Bones of Avalon which has not yet been published in the US, and I haven’t read it yet. It’s about the John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, and the search for King Arthur’s remains.
Be sure to visit www.philrickman.co.uk to learn more. You can even order a Gomer Parry tee shirt or a CD of music inspired by the books. You can also join The Phil Rickman Appreciation Society on Facebook.