by Phil Rickman
Published by Quercus, 2006.
A book from 2006..that’s right The Black Abyss at the cutting edge as always but bear with me here. I have had a soft spot for Phil Rickman for many years. His early novels like Candle Night, Crybbe and The Man In The Moss were excellent. He brought a uniquely British esoteric viewpoint to the horror story, underpinning events with natural magic, earth energies and ancient tradition, his stories had a substance which fascinated me. In 1998 he published the first of his novels featuring Merrily Watkins, The Wine Of Angels and that was when I began to have problems. His normally dark fiction lost much of its atmosphere and instead was more focused on the characters. Since then he has produced a further 9 Merrily books of which The Remains Of An Altar was the 8th.
For those yet to meet Merrily Watkins I should explain that she is a vicar and “deliverance consultant” to the Church of England, that’s exorcist to you and me. Partnered by her daughter Jane, boyfriend Lol and local stalwart Gomer Parry, Merrily is called upon to investigate any strange occurences which the Church can’t otherwise explain.
In The Remains Of An Altar, Merrily is investigating a ghost road. An area where several accidents have occurred seemingly as the result of ghostly apparitions. This is further complicated by the ghost appearing to be that of former local composer, Edward Elgar. At the same time Jane is fighting a local development which would see the destruction of an ancient trackway. Throw in a few nasty landowners, a country pub which has turned into a rave venue and a vicar who is ex-SAS and you can see why the book runs to over 500 pages.
Once again though, I am struggling with the duality here. On the one hand the book is a fascinating account of Elgar’s quest for musical perfection revealing lots of fascinating detail on his life and works. The information on Alfred Watkins and his discovery of ancient trackways, or leys, is also illuminating. Every now and then the book buzzes with atmosphere or genius loci. Phil Rickman is a master at portraying the modern countryside as a living entity sculpted and worked by years of ancient tradition. The Malvern hills and Herefordshire countryside are beautifully and powerfully realised.
The book falters for me on its reliance with the same cast of characters. This means it comes across with the vibe of an early sunday evening drama, such as Midsommer Murders. All very neat and no doubt very marketable but for me it doesn’t have the edge of his previous works. We get weighed down in the character’s issues (Merrily’s religion, Jane’s troubled teenage years, Lol’s tortured artist issues) time and time again. Add to that the cast of often (accidentally) comic characters (the nasty landowners, bent councillors etc) and we descend from dark fiction into something which, for me, is much less powerful.
I can’t help returning to Rickman’s work. The subjects he writes about are classic forteana and as such are fascinating in themselves, I just wish he would return to his darker days when the focus was on the horror of the unknown rather than the horror of the mundane.
Rating 3 out of 5