The Merrily Watkins Series by Phil Rickman
|Book Name:||The Merrily Watkins Series|
|Publisher(s):||Macmillan / Corvus|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Horror / Supernatural Thriller|
|Release Date:||1998 – 2011|
Rather than review the books individually from this fantastic series, I thought instead I would review the series as a whole. It’s easy to do, considering I would give each of the eleven books a five-star rating. If you’ve never read Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series about a spunky, female exorcist in Hereford, then you’re missing out on some of the most suspenseful, gritty and addictive “detective” stories ever written. Part of what makes the series work so well is the fact that the genre is difficult to categorize: it is in part mystery, gothic horror and supernatural crime thriller (I realize it’s a stretch to call it fantasy, but I definitely think there’s crossover appeal).
Merrily Watkins is a single mom and the vicar in a small rural town called Ledwardine. When she is given the dubious honor of being named “Deliverance Consultant” (exorcist), each call that comes in claiming a possession or haunting is never straightforward, and Merrily plays detective, exorcist and worried mother. The setting of rural England near the Welsh border is ideal for all of the pagan rituals, ancient stones and superstitions rooted at the heart of each conflict, giving the novels a wonderful gothic atmosphere.
Merrily herself is delightfully flawed. Her faith is easily shaken, she’s scared to death, and she’s up against old, patriarchal families who strongly dislike having a female vicar, let alone exorcist. She’s addicted to cigarettes and is often trodden down by the will of her teenage daughter, Jane. Some of the local detectives despise her when her diocese work intersects with police investigations, and there is always some backwards malcontent ready to sabotage her efforts to prove she can’t handle the pressure of Deliverance. Jane is always getting into trouble; sometimes it seems her sole obsession is to thwart her mother’s religion by delving into pagan rituals. While Jane’s exploits often appear to be unrelated subplots, they actually parallel the problems that Merrily is trying to solve, which always come together in some kind of bloody and horrific climax that leaves the reader without fingernails. But by far the most appealing relationship in the books is Merrily’s blossoming romance with the musician Lol, a rather broken spirit who is quiet, tender, and the slowest mover in the history of romance. Each kiss and clandestine rendezvous is like a mouth-watering truffle. As soon as the tension seems unbearable, the reader is given tiny rewards that make it all worthwhile, and it’s impossible not to root for these two. The trio is then made complete by a fourth, Gomer Parry, an old, no-nonsense tractor driver who can always be relied on to dig Merrily – literally sometimes – out of trouble.
Rickman’s dialogue is superb. Whether it’s a Welsh farmer or a streetwise London cop, he nails them spot-on. And he’s one of the few authors I know who can pull off writing third-person narrative in dialect. It puts you smack in the middle of each character’s brain, and the prose positively melts in your mouth. And did I mention suspenseful? The end of every chapter is agonizing. Forget cleaning your house or sleeping. Each book, which usually runs somewhere between six- and eight-hundred pages, will demand every moment of your time until it’s finished.
Although the plot of each book is self-contained enough to stand alone, I would still recommend starting with the first book, Wine of Angels (Macmillan, 1998). If I had to pick a favorite, this one would be it. There’s a ghost, the poet Traherne, a doomed play and a positively wicked apple orchard steeped in pagan lore. It also establishes the characters better than any other installment, especially where Lol comes from and why he’s so fragile. From there you could almost take your pick, but still, best to go in order to keep Lol and Merrily’s relationship straight, along with Jane’s growth from an impetuous teen to an impetuous adult. The series is eleven books in (the last just published last year) and shows no signs of slowing down. When you’re caught up, you can read Rickman’s earlier works, which are pure gothic horror and absolutely divine, especially December and Curfew (or Crybbe in the UK). Just leave a nightlight on.