I got started on the Merrily Watkins series back about 2006, when I had an hour’s drive each day.
The first book in the series, The Wine of Angels had me hooked almost instantly. I listened to it on both legs of the daily drive and when the day was done, it had hit on echoes of ancient pagan beliefs, the landscape as a character, folklore and customs, the clash of Neo Pagan thought with Anglican Christianity, ghosts and Nick Drake.
The books revolve around a female Anglican vicar, recently widowed from a shattered marriage, with a teenage daughter to raise. She’s sent to a village on the Welsh border region, her daughter gets steeped in Neo Pagan thought, and later in the series, Merrily is named the exorcist, or Deliverance Minister as they’re trying to modernize the position, of the Hereford diocese.
All whilst also trying to introduce female vicars to a wider Anglican audience.
Eventually I didn’t have that drive any longer and stopped listening to audio books. So I never finished the series. The first book, The Wine of Angels begins in the days after Christmas, and each year at that time I tell myself I should start the series over. So a few months back I started the series from the beginning.
I’m about to finish the third, A Crown Of Lights, and I’m seeing Phil Rickman in a different light. That of prophet.
Without giving too much away, a young Pagan couple buy an old farmhouse in a tiny, remote village near the border between England and Wales. On the property is an abandoned, decommissioned church. Word gets out that the couple plan to use it for Pagan ceremonies, and the local minister encourages the local people, as well as lots of outsiders, to rise up and stop this sacrilege.
The local priest is pushing the boundaries of accepted Anglican belief, and eventually pulls his congregation over the line. Till that point, Merrily Watkins has to offer her support, as it’s the official church position. But the Pagan couple are nice people, legally own the former church and it had been fully decommissioned. Therefore the church can’t officially take a position against them either.
On top of that, there are reasons associated with Merrily’s role as exorcist that would give her reason to be more sympathetic to the couple. This is often the theme – how the church is pulled in multiple, impossible directions, in its attempt to stay relevant in the modern era. All whilst dealing with ancient issues that still lie beneath the landscape, such as ghosts, family curses and cursed locations, past crimes and tragedies and of course, the ancient evils that have been around from the beginning.
Which is important in the series, because most books contain at least one element of pure, primordial evil. Not just evil acts, but evil as a force unto itself. It’s an old fashioned idea and in Rickman’s books, evil is alive in well, even in rural Britain.
But is it horror?
Phil Rickman objects to the label of horror author. I can see why, mainly because the genre of horror has grown so broad as to have little relevancy now. And most connotations aren’t exactly flattering. We’ve replaced the grotesque with gore, and the supernatural with splatter.
From a classical horror point of view however, his books fit the bill. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, the horror generated by the gruesome details of the creature’s creation and his appearance pales to the all too mortal havoc he wreaks in his quest for revenge. But the main element of horror in the story is that which afflicts his creator, Victor Frankenstein. In the creation of life, he usurps the role of God, and so loses his soul.
There was a time when we humans were more cognizant of the value of our souls. That’s something slipping away over time, so it’s not the horror it used to be. In the Merrily Watkins series, the soul is the body part that gets most of her attention.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a similar theme. What good is it to gain several generations of life only to lose your immortal soul? Granted, the dominant thread in both of these stories involve a supernatural element – raising the dead and vampires. The supernatural, though always a factor, is usually less important in the Merrily series than the horror that people afflict upon one another.
Today, horror is defined by film, rather than literature, and usually by how inventive the filmmakers are in creating tension and dissecting the human body. Rickman’s books spill some blood, often in gruesome ways. But not gratuitous. When you reach a certain age, you know the gruesome details from real life. You’ve lost people to accidents, murders, suicides, so you don’t need all the details spilled out for your imagination to fill in the blanks. When you can bring out the horror through the reader’s imagination, then you’ve mastered the craft of horror.
Near the end of A Crown of Lights, in less than five minutes he breaks down one of the most horrifying scenarios I’ve ever heard. Horrifying, because it’s true.
The Merrily Watkins series crosses the ocean to my neck of the woods
What Rickman spelled out in short is this. Nothing brings people together like fear. The minister who is drawing converts from across Britain in A Crown of Lights did his training here in the Bible Belt of the U.S. And so what he does, and how he does it, is something I’ve watched my whole life.
The horror is it works.
What urban thinkers call superstitions, rural people call their traditions and values. That’s where the divide is. When both sides left each other alone, for the most part we all got along. Then politicians – the new evangelists – learned how to divide us, and the fight for the soul of our nation was on.
Evangelical Christians – and they are legion – cling to some beliefs that modern Christianity broke away from during the last decades of the 20th century. These Evangelical beliefs often aren’t ancient or even Biblical, but the result of firebrand ministers barnstorming across the midwest and the south, during the early 19th century.
They built communities that way, based on shared beliefs, but built them less on solid Christian theology than they did on making people believe that their only chance of survival in a harsh environment was to cling fervently to the righteous path. That means taking their community back from anything that varies from the norm. As we see in Britain in A Crown of Lights, that’s easily enough done. You just have to start a witch hunt.
Where to start the Merrily Watkins Mysteries!
The Wine of Angels was the first of the series, and a great introduction to the main characters.
“The new vicar had never wanted a picture-postcard parish—or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk into a dispute over a controversial play about a 17th-century clergyman accused of witchcraft, a story that certain long-established families would rather remained obscure. But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also—as Merrily Watkins and her teenage daughter, Jane, discover—a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.”
It’s not the geography, but the topography that define a people
Here’s why Phil Rickman is a prophet. I first same across A Crown of Lights before the Trump era. I was living in New York. Listening to it now, in the Bible Belt -Trump and God’s country – it rings a few more bells than before.
To start a holy movement, you make your congregation feel their very way of life is in danger. If you have witches in your midst, as in the case of A Crown Of Lights, that makes it easy. Once you have your cause you come together and exert the pressure a community united can wield. When you score your victory, the community is empowered, and you’re on your way.
When you divide a country into urban and rural, the country folks feel pushed around. They’ve felt pushed around for a long time now. The fear of immigrants and a loss of jobs, the changing culture that new people bring threatens a small community’s core beliefs. Those who make their living in a small town, or the countryside surrounding it often have different priorities than those in urban areas. As a result, Britain voted for Brexit, and left the European Union and in America, we elected Donald Trump.
Where Rickman proved prophetic, is the plot lines he illustrates in small communities, translated to the world stage with ease.
This year in Florida, a legislative attack on gays was made in the schools to prevent very young children being exposed to alternate sexualities. In reality, there was no mass attempt to indoctrinate children into a gay or trans way of life in Kindergarten. What counted, is people believe there was. Legislation was passed to prevent comprehensive sex ed in elementary schools. When that passed, emboldened, they went further and passed truly restrictive laws governing their high schools.
On the opposite side, when the gay and trans community came under attack, those groups banded together, just as Christians banded together when they felt disenfranchised. And we became polarized, based on stereotypes held up as straw men. In reality, those stereotypes reflect a small minority on both sides, but like NATO, when you attack one initial of the LGBTQIA+ acronym, or anyone of the Christian faith, they’re bound to protect each other.
Like today’s political climate, A Crown Of Light describes a community where there are far too many fuses, and far too many people wielding matches.
Christians vs. The Pagans
In A Crown of Lights, Pagans rush to defend the couple who bought the former church. Pagans are portrayed as itching for a conflict with the Christians, but only from an underdog status. They have to be attacked first, to justify their response. Their response, like most minorities is to get in the face of their oppressors.
The problem with all religions, including both Christian and Pagan, is when people eschew the philosophy and instead are really just joining a social club. When a group of people possess a club, there’s always the tendency to wield it. And nobody benefits when religions wield their clubs.
The Christians, the Pagans and even the Agnostics take a hit in Rickman’s writing. But where you find redemption in the stories, is Rickman doesn’t deal in stereotypes, but instead gives you an insight into each character’s beliefs. Merrily Watkins is always careful to look past the surface, and deal with individuals and their problems, rather than lump them into a generic group. So the books bring out the humanity, as well as the inhumanity on all sides.
Politics aside …
What I like most about the Merrily Watkins series, is that in the end, it’s a positive message. In today’s world, the Christian message is often all too unforgiving and Bible Black. We’re made to feel so worthless, that we don’t feel worthy of redemption. Merrily fights that belief, which is why the church is looking to recruit women into the ministry. They provide more compassion and light than we’re used to.
Merrily’s focus is on the soul. Sometimes curing the soul doesn’t provide the public exoneration, or publicity Rickman’s more manipulative characters crave. But the truth is, when it comes to your soul, that’s a private affair.
What makes the Merrily Watkins mysteries, and A Crown of Lights work, is that they’re good stories, spooky and well told. If you watched the series The Detectorists, and you like mysteries in the rural British countryside, you’ll likely like these. The main characters aren’t loud, they aren’t superheroes, They’re real people, brought to life by Rickman with nuance and skill. You know their hearts, and you know their fears and weaknesses. You grow to care about them, which means you get hooked on the series, not just a book.
Too often rural Britain, as well as Ireland, Scotland and Wales are painted with a Disney brush. In Rickman’s books, those old ancient British houses are damned cold and damp. Modern day traffic can make everyday transportation a nightmare. Places to live are scarce, and the ancient hop house is now housing, and often expenses housing at that.
When writing about Britain’s mysterious landscape, writers and filmmakers tend to turn to Stonehenge. The settings in Rickman’s books are more local. It might be a mound of dirt, or a barely perceptible ring in the landscape. But that’s enough to give these ancient places a supernatural air about them, which becomes a part of the local fabric over the generations. And yet those ancient mysteries still hold sway over the people, and live on in the blood of the towns and villages he writes about.
I’ve had people ask me, “why don’t you write fiction?” The answer has always been pretty simple. Because Phil Rickman has already written the fiction that I would have written. So I highly recommend it.
Learn more …
Inspired by the Merrily Watkins series
Phil Rickman offers a good array of items inspired by the books, from t-shirts to music. You can find his store by clicking the button below.
The one thing I don’t find on his site, which I covet, would the Lol Robinson alien shirt. So I came up with my own alien products. Probably a bit too colorful for Mr. Robinson, but Merrily and Jane both would likely order the Ethel the Cat alien.