Reading: The man in the moss
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Phil Rickman’s books are difficult to find, and one buys them when one can. This was one of his earlier ones, which we hadn’t read. Many of his other books have characters that appear again, but this one is in a different setting, with different characters.
The characters are not as convincing as those in some of his other books. It is more tinged with horror and dark and evil forces. His later novels, especially in the Merrily Watkins series, turn out to be more like whodunits, and one misses the supernatural chills.
In many ways I should not have liked it as much as I did. And I think the reason I liked it is that I have been in the kind of situations he describes. He gets the relationship between Christianity and paganism better aligned in his later books — the kind of situation he portrays in The man in the moss has been shown to be historically inaccurate in England. But it is in many ways true to life in parts of Africa. It may be wrong in its setting, but move it to another setting, and it becomes true to life.
And to that I would add a few things, not strictly part of a review of the book.
When I first picked up a Phil Rickman book in a bookshop about ten years ago — I think it was either Crybbe or Candenight — I thought from the blurb that he was a kind of Brit Stephen King, a writer of horror stories. I bought it and read it and found that the horror was there, but was neither as horrific not as nihilistic as Stephen King’s better ones, nor did it, like some of Stephen King’s stories (IT, The Tommyknockers, cross over into science fiction. I liked it enough to buy a few more of his books, when I could find them, and was interested in the way some of the characters, like Gomer Parry, the plant hire man, reappeared in other books.
In most of Rickman’s later books the protagonist is Merrily Watkins, diocesan exorcist of the Anglican Diocese of Hereford, and there has been a gradual shift in genre from supernatural horror to crime novel and whodunit. The characters have become more believable, and so have the plots, in the sense that what is thought to be supernatural evil usually turnsd out to be more prosaic human sin and frailty. Rickman has also honed his knowledge of the Church of England and neopaganism, and his descriptions have become more true to life. In his earlier books he was relying more on New Age sources, and what modern pagans often call “fluffy bunny” sources, and this is certainly true of The man in the moss, which is based on the idea of Celtic pagan survivals in the Church of England, much of which has been shown historically to be false. See, for example, this very good article, which summarises developments in historical studies.
But while the plot of The man in the moss may be based on false historical premisses, it is nevertheless quite true to life in another sense and another setting. The man in the moss has a caricature of an Evangelical Anglican clergyman, determined to put an end to all the pagan hanky-panky that he finds in Bridelow. Rickman’s later portrayals of Anglican clergy are more true to life. But, characters aside, it reminded me of an Anglican mission in KwaNdebele, on which I wrote my MTh dissertation, about 25 years ago. My friend the Revd Alphaeus Ndebele, an evangelical Anglican priest from Zululand, was brought in to KwaNdebele to evangelise it. It was a rapidly-growing quasi-urban area with thousands of people who had been ethnically cleansed from other places under thei apartheid policy being dumped or settled there. I had seen a similar thing in England, at Washington New Town in County Durham. Thousands of new residents, a rather hostile and uncaring bureaucracy, and the church trying to cope with the influx. In one of the older congregationsat Kwaggafontein in KwaNdebele the churchwarden was a sangoma, a diviner, or witchdoctor, as they are sometimes called.
A few months later the witchdoctor’s daughter was being exorcised by a group of nuns from Zululand, who took her back with them to spend a few weeks at the Convent, much to the displeasure of her father, who had expected her to take over the family business. There was a culture clash between the charismatic Zululand Anglican culture and the somewhat syncretistic KwaNdebele one, that is very similar to what is described in Rickman’s book. It may not have been true in its setting, but it was quite true to life elsewhere.
This post is part of a synchroblog on syncretism. The very first synchroblog, in December 2006, organised by Phil Wyman and John Smulo, was on that topic, and we are now revisiting it after two-and-a-half years.
You can find more posts on the topic here: