Haunted England: Phil Rickman and his Books

Abbey Tapes
Abbey Tapes

Looking  for an interesting book this summer, I saw Diana Gabaldon had recommended Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series, so I gave one a try. It was pretty good, so I read the next one...then another...then, well you get it. These books are like heroin. Period. You can't stop. The more you get immersed in Rickman's English countryside and historical towns, the more you want. After you buzz through all the Merrilys, you search for what else he's written, and voila! there's more - mysterious atmospheres, gruesome murders dripping with bloody historic legends, musicians, quaint villages, titled lords, beautiful witches...what more could you ask for?  Am I hooked?  Oh yes, I admit it and let me tell you more. Rickman doesn't fit into categories neatly. If there was such a genre as crime-thriller-supernatural with great characters, I guess that would be a start. His earlier works and a new one, out in January in the US, Night After Night, are stand-alones with different locales and characters (although Rickman has a delicious habit of using characters from one book in another all the time, and it's like meeting old friends when you turn the page.) These include The Chalice, The Man in the Moss and December. December is my favorite of these: A record producer puts together a supergroup of musicians with psychic abilities to record an album in a haunted abbey - what could possibly go wrong? It even has its own soundtrack - The Abbey Tapes - the Exorcism - and it's eerily good.

The Merrily Watkins series consists of 12 books so far, and I hope there's many more, beginning with The Wine of Angels, introducing Merrily, the widowed vicar of Ledwardine and her teenage daughter Jane, and a cast of other characters that move on through the next 11, albeit with many changes in their fates and circumstances. Merrily isn't just an attractive woman vicar, she's also a Deliverance Consultant for the Church of England. (Yes, they really have them.) That job's duties include investigating paranormal events, maybe even exorcism, so for an author as clever as Rickman, there's an endless supply of plots and characters. Rickman's fictional village of Ledwardine is a composite of the black-and-white timbered villages of Herefordshire, with all the trimmings -- church, vicarage, pubs, shops, farms and old time residents battling the influx of city people looking for a quaint hideaway. Ledwardine's charm attracts the incomers, but the very charm that lures them is in danger of being destroyed by their coming -- rising prices, highways, congestion, and in many cases, lack of respect for the customs and traditions of the countryside.  Not only are these novels entertaining, but Rickman imbues them with layers of sociology and history, which to an American, is immensely appealing.  It's been an education as well as a treat, getting to know the places and people that populate them, both now and past, fictional and real.

Phil's website, http://www.philrickman.co.uk is a treasure  and includes not only his books and the music created from them by Allan Watson and Rickman, but information about the area, including Hay-on-Wye, the world famous book town, locations of many of the places Merrily's adventures take her, and Phil the Shelf, his radio show. There's also a Facebook page, the Phil Rickman Appreciation Society, one of the best author fan pages I've seen, and Phil himself comments now and then.

All right, I admit it, I'm a huge fan.The next time I go to England, I'm heading straight for Rickman country. Armed with knowledge, I'll try to be low key and not an obvious tourist, but hopefully my enthusiasm won't out me too quickly.  I can't wait for the next book, and it's my one-woman mission to make Phil Rickman, Merrily Watkins, Lol Robinson and Gomer Parry Plant Hire household names in the States.  (I need a GPPH sweatshirt, pretty sure.)

Read Rickman, and listen to the music while you do. I can't say you won't develop an addiction, but it's one you'll be glad to have.