Written by Phil Rickman — The Reverend Merrily Watkins – vicar of the Herefordshire village of Lentwardine – is a widow. Years ago, her philandering husband came off second-best in a collision with a motorway bridge. Now, Merrily’s ‘night job’ is to be the deliverance consultant (read exorcist) for the diocese. While daughter Jane finds her way through her university gap year, Merrily rekindles her relationship with musician Lol Robinson as the series reaches its 14th instalment.
In Hereford several things are disturbing the peace. First, an ancient tree blows over in a gale revealing a long-buried skeleton among its roots. Nothing much to concern the police here, but when the skull is stolen and a young archaeologist has his own cranium shattered with a claw hammer, local copper Frannie Bliss has no option but to investigate. All the while, a new and breezily modern bishop has been installed, and he’s not sure an exorcist is required in today’s church.
Fearing for her job, Merrily is asked to investigate an ancient farmhouse which is all that survives – apart from a ruined castle – of the village of Cwmarrow. The house has a distinctly malevolent presence, which may link to its former owner, the fantasy novelist Selwyn Kyndley-Price. The current residents are stroke-afflicted builder Dennis Kellow, his New Zealand wife, their Muslim convert daughter, and her husband who is an orthopaedic surgeon of Pakistani origin.
Merrily visits the unhappy house at Cwmarrow, while Jane has a mooch around the castle ruins, to get some idea of the location. While her mum is indoors, trying to reconcile the two halves of the Kellow family, Jane tries to imagine what the ‘lost’ village must have been like. What follows is as scary and disturbing as anything ever written by that other master of unease and subtle hints of evil, MR James.
Part of Rickman’s art involves combining an ostensibly standard police procedural with a sense of something going on around the investigation that is not entirely of this world. There is no fictional copper more down to earth than Frannie Bliss, and yet he knows there are things that he doesn’t know, and this is where his interaction with Merrily Watkins is so intriguing, as he seeks to find the connection between the murdered archaeologist and the house at Cwmarrow.
Between them, Merrily and Jane find out that there is a legend about Cwmarrow, which its former owner Kyndley-Price, borrowed in his books. The tales featured a malign presence known as The Summoner, who would come down from the nearby forest into the village, and point the finger of Death at those who were to die in the next few months. For a while the novels were cult reading for impressionable teenagers, particularly those of the Emo and Goth persuasion.
Soon, the author’s other great talent shines through; he has the knack of weaving together recent real life crime – in this case the sexual exploitation of impressionable youngsters – with his plot. Merrily and Bliss discover that Kyndley-Price used to hold open house at Cwmarrow for young men and women who were fans of his novels. Kyndley-Price, they learn, had much more sinister things on his mind than signing books for his admirers.
Two other regular characters from the previous Merrily novels make a significant contribution to the chilling climax of the novel. Huw Owen – the maverick Welsh priest and Merrily’s spiritual advisor – intervenes in a distinctly secular fashion in the dispute between her and the bishop. Anthea White – an elderly woman with a very special skill-set – seeks to best the ungodly former author at his own game.
This is a gripping read which will more than satisfy existing Merrily Watkins fans, and will also win her many new devotees.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars