The Reverend Merrily Watkins, who was first brought to life by Phil Rickman in The Wine of Angels in 1998, is, on one level, your average workaday Anglican parish priest. For starters she is a woman, and the Church’s own website tells us that while male ordinations are declining, those of women are increasing rapidly. Secondly, Merrily faces a declining congregation in her Herefordshire village – just like hundreds of other parishes up and down the country. Thirdly, she observes – at a distance, admittedly – the continuing friction between modernising progressives and the traditionalists in the hierarchy of the Church of England.
But the Reverend Mrs Watkins is crucially different from most of her fellow vicars. Some of them may also be single parents, but not many would have had a husband who was a crooked lawyer, and fewer still would have lost him in a fatal car crash. While Merrily is very far from a Merry Widow – she is much too introspective and self-examining for that – she does have a love life. The object of her affection is a talented but tormented singer-songwriter called Lol Robinson. His career as a latter day Nick Drake has been blighted by stage fright and self doubt but, so far at least, unlike the late and lamented Drake, he is still in the land of the living. Rickman’s own love of music and guitars shines through in his portrayal of Robinson, and if you want a slightly left-field novel involving musicians and the supernatural, you could do far worse than to read Rickman’s December (1994), a chilling retake on the impact of the death of John Lennon.
While Merrily’s relationship with Lol is, despite her attempts to be subtle, the worst kept secret in the village, her secondary occupation is known to very few of her remaining parishioners outside of her churchwardens. Merrily is, to use her official title, the diocesan Deliverance Consultant. That is Deliverance as in the words of the Litany of The Church of England:
From all evil and wickedness; from sin;
from the crafts and assaults of the devil;
and from everlasting damnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
Merrily Watkins does not like to use the ‘E’ word when talking about her work, as that tends to bring into people’s minds swiveling heads, the projectile vomiting of green slime and teenage girls with a rather gruff and inventive turn of phrase. Instead, she tries to offer solace and the comfort of The Holy Spirit; sometimes to people, but more often to places where the presence of the dead is disturbing those who live within the four walls. She is never sure whether she is trusted by her boss – the Bishop of Hereford – or simply tolerated. Bishops come and go, however, and in the most recent novel, Friends Of The Dusk (2015) a new incumbent brings with him the proverbial new broom, and Merrily has to put herself in personal danger if she is not to be swept away.
So, when Merrily encounters ‘the crafts and assaults of the devil’, does she believe what she is seeing and feeling? She is certainly susceptible to atmosphere, and Rickman is clever enough to keep things subtle; there are no movie special effects here, but the temperature might drop a degree or two, a weathered stone carving might take on a sinister aspect in the fading light of dusk, and a creaking floorboard is usually enough to have us reaching for the crucifix.
One of Rickman’s many skills is the way he allows real life characters to inhabit Merrily’s world. Over the series, he has brought in a star-studded cast of people who have had a real connection with the Welsh border country. In The Remains of An Altar (2007) the shades of Sir Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins (The Old Straight Path) pay a visit, and The Magus of Hay (2013) we meet The Hay on Wye entrepreneur Richard Booth and, slightly at a tangent, Eric Gill and Beryl Bainbridge. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle puts in a retrospective appearance in The Prayer Of The Night Shepherd (2004) when Merrily’s teenage daughter Jane has a holiday job in a hotel every bit as spooky as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and which is the place that perhaps inspired ACD to write his masterly The Hound of The Baskervilles. The sinister presence of Fred West lurks in the corner of The Lamp of The Wicked (2003) and in The Wine of Angels (1998) the life and words of the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne echo throughout the plot.
Jane Watkins, dear, dear Jane. Rickman shamelessly uses daughter Jane to scare the pants off us on a regular basis, in that she goes where angels – and her mother – fear to tread. Jane seems to age on a slightly different timescale to the adult characters, but we basically see her through sixth form and away to university. She might be what older and less charitable folk call a ‘snowflake’. She is environmentally aware, probably quite left wing, and very much the feminist. Fortunately, we have yet to hear her demand Safe Spaces or clamour for the No Platforming of some speaker with whose views she disagrees, but her vehement defence of archaeological sites has led her into conflict with some pretty unpleasant corporate types, and she is forever wandering off – usually while mum is preoccupied – into situations where she makes herself a prime target for the bad guys.
There are several regular members of the Phil Rickman Repertory Company. Gomer Parry is a roll-up smoking drainage contractor who is intensely supportive of Merrily, and acts as a kind of Greek Chorus offering commonsense views on distinctly unusual situations. Franny Bliss is Merrily’s point of contact with the police. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that these novels are, albeit with a decided twist, crime fiction novels, and so the Liverpudlian copper, based in Hereford, is an essential player. If Parry and Bliss sit on the Profane benches, then two occupants of the Sacred side of The House must be mentioned. Huw Owen is a bluntly spoken northern priest who has seen more of The Devil’s works than he cares to mention, but he is the closest Merrily has to a spiritual advisor, even though he spends most of his time in an obscure retreat away in the Welsh hills. Sophie Hill is the Bishop’s secretary, and she ought, by rights, with her severe manner and unimpeachable Anglican pedigree, to be very sniffy about the Vicar of Ledwardine, but she is one of Merrily’s most subtle – and caring – allies.
We have talked about Merrily’s metaphorical and spiritual landscape, but the physical landscape of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and the Welsh borders is a constant and sometimes sinister presence. The dark little valleys with their decaying Victorian chapels, the remote manor houses with their fragments of medieval and Tudor stonework and the isolated, hard-scrabble farms where lonely men might – and sometimes do – become quite mad, provide enough chills of the earthly kind even before the unquiet dead need to put in an appearance.
Phil Rickman is a fine writer and his earlier stand-alone novels and his John Dee series are proof enough of that, were any needed. It is in the Merrily Watkins novels, however, that Rickman interweaves the threads of murder, police procedure, the power of landscape and faint but potent wisps of the supernatural to produce a literary cloth of gold which is little short of miraculous. Merrily Watkins is a brilliant creation. She is brave, vulnerable, demure yet sexy and, above all, completely believable.