Written by Martyn Waites — A rural community, cut off, left behind and no longer benefiting from the nation’s wider prosperity. A place with its own way of doing things, traditions and beliefs – which includes a distrust of outsiders. Down on their luck, drastic measures seem to be the only way forward, and an act that could do the inhabitants more harm than good. A decision based on strong emotions rather than rational thought. Does that sound familiar?
Yes, a certain perspective on Brexit and its likely outcome is the core underlying theme of The Old Religion by Martyn Waites. It’ll certainly stick in the craw of hardcore Brexiters, but the story also delivers plenty of adventure, darkness, action and suspense. Alongside the Brexit cynicism it’s also got about two crow skulls’ worth of sinister.
Tom Killgannon is an ex-cop and an ex-marine. An undercover operation that went awry up North means he’s hiding out under a witness protection programme in St Petroc, Cornwall. Too ugly and too far from the beach for the tourists, it’s a place on the down and out. The great hope is that outside investment will bring a marina to the cove and revive St Petroc’s fortunes. Tom hasn’t lived there for 25 years, so he’s an outsider, pulling pints in the pub for stoney-faced locals. On the TV news is the story of a missing university student, who was down in Cornwall for some surfing.
Runaway Lila is on the run again. She’s been living in a community of travellers and surfers near St Petroc, and was used by two of then – Noah and Kai – to lure naive young Kyle into the back of a van. Kyle is that aforementioned university student, and he’s not been heard from since. Regretting what she’s done, Lila has escaped the camp and, with nowhere to go, has broken into Tom’s rented cottage. He finds her there, calms her down, they start to talk, which tweaks his interest in the missing student. The names Noah and Morrigan crop up but before he can get to the bottom of it, Lila bolts once again. The immediate problem for Tom is that she’s stolen his new ID.
Morrigan is not a name spoken around the village, but is a character that casts a dark shadow across it – helping people here with advice passed down through the ages, casting the odd incantation, while for bigger problems a curse is sometimes necessary. There are always consequences when using the old ways, Morrigan points out, and all of this has to be done on the quiet. Anyone letting on about these ancient secrets could find a dead crow nailed to their door.
Several interconnected storylines emerge, each of them urgent and filled with a sense of impending danger. Tom hunts for Lila in the drug dens of Newquay; Noah and Kai are hunting her too, while keeping Kyle prisoner; and Morrigan is manipulating both the villagers and the traveller community. If everything goes to plan, a blood offering will be made in the stone circle in the coming days – can Tom discover the plot? Can he prevent it?
Calling the main antagonist Morrigan, after the black-feathered goddess of battle, is probably a little blatant for Celtic mythology buffs. Although there are plenty of scary moments in an abandoned tin mine, along the cliffside path and in the darkened streets of the village, you’re never quite enveloped in the kind of pagan creepiness the book’s title seems to promise. The commentary on Brexit isn’t thinly veiled, in fact it’s not veiled at all. And yet The Old Religion still rips along, with thrills and suspense peaking every few chapters as those storylines are slowly drawn together.
You’re never quite sure which characters are going to reveal themselves to be good at heart, or evil through and through. Waites plays the dappling of love interests in Tom’s storyline rather well – two women seem to want his attention, it seems certain one will betray him to the dark side, but you’re never sure which. The storytelling is strong throughout, and as the two unstoppable forces of Tom Killgannon and Morrigan are drawn onto a collision course there’s no way you’ll be able to put The Old Religion down until all is resolved.
For more Celtic creepiness in the mist try The Visitors by Simon Sylvester, while George Mann’s Wychwood is a mystery heaped with Saxon legend that also intrigues.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars