It seems like half a lifetime since there was a Merrily Watkins novel – it was All of a Winter’s Night back in 2017 (click the title to read my review) and there has been one hell of a lot of water under the bridge for all of us since then including, sadly, Phil Rickman suffering serious illness. His many fans will join me in hoping that he is on the mend, and at last we have a new book! Old Ledwardine hands won’t need reminding, but for newcomers this graphic may be helpful.
Now, as another celebrated solver of mysteries once said, “The game’s afoot!” We are in relatively modern times, March 2020, and the Covid Curse has begun to cast its awful spell. The senior Anglican clergy, including the Bishop of Hereford, are relentlessly determined to be woker than woke, and have decided that exorcism – or, to use the other term, deliverance – is the stuff or the middle ages, and clergy are being advised to refer any strange events to the NHS mental health teams. This, of course, puts Merrily Watkins’ ‘night job’ under threat. She and her mentor Huw Owen know that some people experience events which cannot simply be the result of their poor mental health.
The Merrily Watkins novels have a template. This is not to say they are formulaic in a derogatory sense. The template involves a crime – most often a murder or mysterious death. This is investigated by the West Mercia police, usually in the form of Inspector Frannie Bliss. The investigation then reveals what appear to be supernatural or paranormal characteristics, which then secures the involvement of the Rev. Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine.
Here, a prominent Hereford estate agent and enthusiastic rock climber, Peter Portis, has plummeted to his death from one of the peaks of a Wye Valley rock formation known as The Seven Sisters. A tragic accident? Perhaps. A parallel plot develops. In another parish, the vicar – a former TV actor called Arlo Ripley – has asked Merrily for help. One of his flock has reported seeing the spectre of a young girl and isn’t sure what to do. Enter, stage left, William Wordsworth. Not in person, obviously, but on a visit to the Wye Valley, the poet apparently met a young girl who claimed she could communicate with her dead siblings. The result was his poem We are Seven. That, and Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey are the spine of this novel. Click the titles, and you will see the full texts of the poems. The girl who has entered the life of Maya Madden – a TV producer renting a cottage in the village of Goodrich – seems to be one and the same as Wordsworth’s muse.
Enter, stage right, another Hereford copper, David Vaynor. Nicknamed ‘Darth’ by his boss Frannie Bliss, he is an unusual chap. For starters, he has a PhD in English literature, and his thesis was based on Wordsworth’s time in Herefordshire. To add to the strangeness, while he was researching his work, he went into what is known as King Arthur’s Cave, a natural cavity in the rock close to where Portis met his end. While he was in there, he has a residual memory of sinking – exhausted – into what was a natural rock chair – and then being visited by a succubus.¹
Yes, yes, – the poor lad was tired, a bit hormonal and having bad dreams. But wait. As Vaynor is doing his job, and interviewing those who knew Portis, he meets his daughter in law, and she reminds him horribly of the woman he ‘met’ on that fateful afternoon in King Arthur’s Cave.
This has everything Merrily Watkins fans – and newcomers to the series – could want. A deep sense of unease, matchless atmosphere – the funeral held in fading light in a virtually disused churchyard, for example – the wonderful ambiguity of Rickman’s approach to the supernatural – we never actually see the phantoms, but we are aware that other people have – the wonderful repertory company of characters who interact so well, and also a deep sense that the past is never far away. There is also a palpable sense of irony that ‘the fever of the world’ is not just a metaphor from a Wordsworth poem, but was actually happening as the coronavirus took hold.
The Fever of the World is published by Corvus/Atlantic books and is out now.
¹A succubus is a demon or supernatural entity in folklore, in female form, that appears in dreams to seduce men, usually through sexual activity.