Phil Rickman
Exorcising crime with Merrily Watkins

Jump to page:  

The first time I read Phil Rickman, Crybbe wound up in the 'wannabe' pile, but for some reason (that will possibly become obvious later) I persisted and hammered down December, Candlenight and The Chalice in what was perhaps the most subliminal streak of foresight I've ever had.
    An unspecified amount of time later, The Wine Of Angels appeared on the shelf and it was good. Very good. I felt that Rickman had stumbled onto something a little bit unique and my doggedness was being rewarded. God damn if the follow-up Midwinter Of The Spirit wasn't every bit as good and chilling . . .

counterculture: So just who is Merrily Watkins - the heroine of a quintet of remarkably original books - and how did she come to be?

Phil Rickman: Right from the beginning I never wanted to be known as a horror writer. I've always been interested in the paranormal, mysticism and earth-mysteries, and there were some themes I wanted to explore. But giant rats, etc? Forget it! Also, I've never been into fantasy - never even read the Lord Of The Rings. For me, it has to be the 'real' supernatural or nothing. If I can't believe it, it doesn't go in. Okay, Crybbe ran a bit close to the edge, and I've been backing off ever since.
    The early novels - from Candlenight to The Chalice - weren't crime but they weren't horror either. But in today's cramped market you've got be part of a genre. Merrily came about because I was so pissed off with being branded as a horror writer and not getting to the people who might have enjoyed the books.
    I decided to produce a novel that was closer to Miss Marple (an exaggeration, but you get the point), so that nobody could class it as horror - they tried, of course, and it's taken me nearly five years to get off the shelf next to Anne Rice, and into crime. Not that I've anything against Anne - good writer, nice woman.
    Anyway, Merrily was the new vicar of a Herefordshire village, and she was originally going to be a secondary character, until a plot occurred to me - a plot which, although it involved a 'ghost story' element, could be fully and rationally resolved. I realised then that I was onto something entirely new. Merrily took centre stage, and I looked around for ways I could credibly bring her back for a second book, or even a whole series . . . which was how she became diocesan deliverance consultant, or exorcist, for Hereford.

cc: Surely there is still contention in the church about women in that role? Couple that with the deliverance ministry and a criminally inclined plot, I would imagine that you may have quite easily stirred up a hornets nest. Have the church kept a low profile or have you heard from them?

PR: The church have been fine. I've heard from all kinds of people connected with deliverance - and I've heard some stories I'd hesitate to use at this stage, for reasons of credibility. It isn't all 'more tea, Vicar'. They seldom talk about the heavy stuff, but it's there.

cc: So far, you seem to have avoided any comparisons in your work. If I were Kathy Reichs, I'd be horrified that Patricia Cornwell's name was mentioned on the cover of my book. Likewise, if I were Cornwell, I wouldn't be too happy either. Other books have recommendations from other 'genre' authors, is that a help or hindrance to be marketed in that mould?

PR: Okay - and this is probably the first time I've talked about this publicly - about six years ago, I was offered an extremely tempting three-book deal by another publisher, who said, 'we'll turn you into the next Stephen King,' and although they were offering far more money than I was getting from Macmillan, I turned it down. Much as I admire many of Steve's books, I just didn't want to be the new him - or the new anybody. Taking that offer would have been close to deception. I wanted to do something different, and now I'm stuck in a genre of one.
    I do have a quote from John Connolly on the back of the paperback of The Cure Of Souls because I like his novels . . . we both admire James Lee Burke.

cc: When we spoke, we talked briefly about how you weren't exactly enamoured with your publishers choice of covers for your books as a marketing tool - and that you'd rather sit next to Ruth Rendell than Peter Straub - but I can kind of see their point here; the buying public have to look for you somewhere on the shelf. I think if you were marketed as a 'genreless' author under 'fiction a-z' your (or anyone else's for that matter) career could be rather short - comment?

PR: Don't get me wrong, I love some of Straub's books, particularly Ghost Story and If You Could See Me Now but yes, I'm much happier on the crime shelf because I'm now writing essentially crime novels, with a variable element of the paranormal - sometimes it can be explained psychologically, sometimes it can't. That's pretty much like real life. I still have to convince the crime critics, however. Some of them - like the headmistressy Suzanne Yager in the Sunday Telegraph - can be awfully sniffy about the supernatural. My view is, these things happen. Most things can be rationally explained, but not everything. The number of actual crimes - particularly murders - involving a suggested element of the paranormal which can never be explained in court is remarkable.

cc: In all honesty after reading the early novels - Crybbe, December and The Chalice - I thought they were pretty average, but when Merrily came along in The Wine Of Angels, it was obvious that Phil had stumbled on something very special, and - while maybe not completely original - there was enough distance between him and the last time it was done properly to make it so. I asked Phil about his plans and how he viewed his past.

PR: I'll never go back to that 'thing' that I never really did in the first place. Horror, as we knew it in the '80s, is dead. It became gross and flabby and its heart gave out. I want to explore the way that the inexplicable sometimes intrudes into what we think of as real life, but I want to do it in a way that's acceptable to people who don't believe in any of it. And I'd like to go on seeing it through the eyes of someone whose job it is to investigate it with both scepticism and a certain level of acceptance. So I'll stay with Merrily until we get tired of one another.

Go to top of pageGo to 2 : Aliens and authorsJump to page:  
Latest articles

Alone in the dark: Buffy The Vampire Slayer bows out in style with the Season Seven DVD Collection.

Johnny Knoxville plays him in the movie Grand Theft Parsons, but counterculture speaks to the man himself: Phil Kaufman interviewed.