Midwinter Of The Spirit
Lancashire-born Phil Rickman began his writing career producing thick books, deep with character and intertwined events, revolving around ancient religion and practices, mysticism, New Age matters and old British customs and traditions. An open-minded and dark streak, offered up with titles like Crybbe [later renamed Curfew], December, The Man In The Moss and Candlenight soon placed him within the wide expanses of the horror genre, a label that Rickman was never keen on. I see his point; these books are near to horror, but much quieter, any horrors are much more insidious and slow-burning, or often the horror of what happens when two opposing faiths find themselves against each other. For a publisher they are indeed hard to classify; they have some horror and fantasy themes, but sometimes are nearer to crime fiction, a sort of supernatural thriller, steeped in the old ways of simpler times, and usually set in out-of-the-way corners of central Britain.
Midwinter Of The Spirit is the second book in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, concerning the exploits of a small-town female reverend who gets mixed up in all kinds of old-religion themed trouble. The first book, The Wine Of Angels concerns big families who hide big secrets that span centuries and a religion-based murderer. Rickman must have attached to the character of Merrily Watkins and in Midwinter, Merrily has had an upgrade, so much so, that the first book is almost just a prequel to the fourteen or so that followed. In Midwinter, Merrily has been picked out by the clergy to be a ‘Deliverance minister’, basically a modern euphemism for an appointed and official Exorcist. Any problems of an occult or supernatural nature that arise within her diocese are pointed towards her, and it is her that the Church rely on to do her job, sort things out, but keep them reasonably quiet and out-of-the-way. The trouble is, in Midwinter, Merrily has just finished her brief training, isn’t really sure she wants to take the job, and isn’t entirely sure what she’s doing when she is thrown in at the deep end and asked to look into some difficult and personally-painful events. First there is the case of Denzil Joy, a man who has led an evil life full of unpleasant things. Denzil is on his death-bed in the hospital, but his nurses and carers are scared of him and even near death, he seems to have some kind of supernatural unclean aura around him. The man soon dies, but something of his spirit is passed on to Merrily; his subsequent haunting of the Reverend causes great friction and stress in her life, and she finds it increasingly difficult to deal with the further problems that are thrown her way. Churches are desecrated, a young woman trying to attune with her long-dead ancestors is found dead, and another body is pulled out of the river Wye. All these events have sinister connotations in themselves – on top of this Merrily’s teenage daughter Jane is getting friendly with a clique of people with darker intent than their New Age group would seem to suggest. All of this is cleverly twisted and twined together, while haunted Merrily tries to take it all in and piece it together, often making it up as she goes along. And sometimes it seems that even the Church is not always on her side.
Midwinter Of The Spirit, like all of Rickman’s books is around 500 pages long, thick, and creates a deep sense of character and events. Yet the pages do go by very fast; it doesn’t seem as long as it is. Some people, however, dislike Rickman’s writing style – it is very familiar, chatty, sometimes almost like a stream of consciousness from whichever character he’s writing about at the time. He also jumps around a lot with the events – often within one chapter, two or three plot lines are on the go together. This definitely accelerates the reading – you’ll quickly read bits in order to get back to the character you’ve just left – but is occasionally confusing and a little jarring. Often in a long book, a large cast of characters can also make for confusing reading - with constant flickbacks to find out who Sophie is again, for example, - but here Rickman does a pretty good job of giving characters their own identity, and I felt mostly at ease with around 10 -15 central characters.
There are some ghosts here – and a novel and fun way of categorising them – but this is far from a horror novel; like I said above, I would call it a Supernatural Thriller, although I’d be tempted to say Drama instead of Thriller, because that is more the case here. It’s all very interesting and keeps you reading, but for my taste, it never quite built up the thrills enough to qualify as a thriller; the climax particularly seemed a little low-key to tie up all the 500 pages before it. But before you get the idea that this is a negative review, it is far from it. Rickman has created a deep and rich world with his Merrily Watkins character, a world where the old beliefs still linger, and where ghosts and occult events are commonplace but swept under the carpet by the authorities. I enjoyed the book; it is a rich and deep novel with many subplots skilfully weaved together. The world Rickman has created is no doubt filled in even further with the long list of sequels – and Midwinter has recently been adapted as a three-part ITV series [enjoyable stuff, slightly altered and necessarily condensed from the book, and only slightly confusing if you haven’t read the source material] and hopefully more will follow.
I liked Midwinter Of The Spirit, although I enjoyed The Man In The Moss slightly more because it was nearer to a straight horror story. Phil Rickman is an interesting writer and I’ll be reading more of his engaging books in the future. 7/10