Midwinter of the spirit
After reading The Lamp of the Wicked, which was less than impressive, I started re-reading this one to remind myself of what I liked about Phil Rickman‘s books. This one is certainly the best of Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series of books.
Merrily Watkins, Vicar of Ledwardine in the Church of England Diocese of Hereford, has some spooky experiences in the first book of the series, The Wine of Angels, and this leads to the new trendy and relevant bishop offering her the post of Diocesan Exorcist, with the more user-friendly title of “Deliverance Consultant”. She attends a course on deliverance ministry in Wales, led by the Revd Huw Owen, and almost immediately after returning from the course finds herself inundated with “deliverance” work, leading to her churchwarden complaining that she is not spending enough time in the parish.
To add to her difficulties her teenage daughter Jane is going through a New Age phase, and alternates between despising the deliverance ministry as “soul police” and regarding the Church of England as so totally lacking in spirituality as to be incompetent to handle anything spiritual at all.
With a plot involving ley lines, pagan sacrifices, ghosts, demon possession, satanism, suicide and even murder, Merrily Watkins find enemies and allies in unexpected places.
With a great deal packed into a small space, the plot is somewhat overheated and over the top, though the individual incidents are all quite believable, and one can accept them for the sake of the story. It’s a supernatural thriller, but there is always the ambiguity of everything that happens also having a natural and rational explanation. This prevents Phil Rickman’s books from turning into something like Frank Peretti or even Stephen King. It also presents something of the variety of the religious landscape of turn-of-the-century Britain.
In this sense Midwinter of the spirit probably marks Phil Rickman‘s high point. The later ones degenerate into rather run-of-the-mill whodunits, with the “deliverance” aspect played down. In The Lamp of the Wicked it looks as though Rickman is trying to write Huw Owen out of the series, or at least to write him off as an incompetent bumbler.