I’ve mentioned Phil Rickman in a couple of blogs now, because he’s an author I enjoy and admire. However, he’s not yet anything like as famous as he should be, so it occurred to me that I should devote a blog to saying a bit more about who he is, what he does, and why he has a significant pagan following.
I first encountered Phil Rickman some years ago when he was interviewed by Pagan Dawn magazine. In that piece he talked about his interest in the occult, and his not being a pagan. Even though I’d never heard of him before, it was a sufficiently interesting article that I still remember it, many years later.
I used to review fiction for White Dragon – a pagan magazine based in the UK. Rowan, the editor, offered me a Phil Rickman novel, so I said yes. It was ‘The Fabric of Sin’ and brought me in a fair distance into his Merrily Watkins series. It stood alone perfectly well. I sometimes had the sense that there currents in the background and developments that might seem more important were I following the entire series, but the story itself made sense. I was impressed. A while later I picked up two stories from earlier in the series – “Midwinter of the Soul” and “A Crown of Lights” these too stood alone, and I filled in more character detail. I eventually got round to the first one – “The Wine of Angels” and now some of the larger story arcs make more sense.
The Merrily Watkins series follow the adventures of said character. She’s a widow, and single parent to a teenage girl, Jane. Merrily is a vicar, starting out when female vicars in the UK were unfamiliar and radical. Then she gets into exorcism – Deliverance Ministry, which puts her in an odd place in relation to the Anglican church. Her daughter dabbles in paganism. The stories are mysteries, although murder is not always the focal point – one centred around a suicide. The first one is heavy on the body count, but I suspect the author of not imagining he’d get to do a whole series. Rickman has an engaging writing style, good plots, interesting twists and a large cast of very strong and compelling characters, many of whom appear in more than one story.
His appeal to pagan readers stems partly from the character of Jane – he’s very much captured the teenage girl drawn to witchcraft, with all the challenges, pitfalls, mistakes and wonders that journey can involve. As a female vicar working with the supernatural, Merrily is easy to empathise with. I can’t help but feel she’d make a very good druid, in other circumstances. Frequently the occult elements of the story provide the tension and the bodies. Satanists feature as bad guys, but so do church figures, media folk, farmers, landed gentry… Rickman will keep you guessing. Witchy types are just as likely to be the good guys as the villains. So he’s very even handed in portraying occultism, and this is very appealing.
Rickman has done his homework. He knows his history, folklore, superstition, and plenty about occult practice, and natural magic. He might not be claiming to be pagan himself, but he has a great deal of insight into what might have been, and into what contemporary paganism is like. He reflects modern paganism (warts and all) in a way that is entirely recognisable, without relying on stereotypes, clichés, or too much melodrama. Reading his work as a pagan, I tend to feel that I am reading about people I recognise, lifestyles I know, and that’s rather pleasing.
The other great source of appeal to pagans is the degree to which his stories are rooted in landscape. Places, and their history, buildings and their connection to human activity, the wonder and danger of the wild, the magic in the apple tree… these things Rickman understands. Set along the Herefordshire border with Wales – an area rich in history, the Merrily Watkins stories have roots, and bring the landscape vividly to life. The sense of place, of season, of land and living close to it permeates his writing, and this will speak to any pagan soul.
His homepage is here – http://www.philrickman.co.uk/pages/Home.html and I heartily recommend checking him out.