The Cure of Souls
UK Hardcover First
496 Pages; £16.99 ($45.00)
Date Reviewed: 02-04-02
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002
In the world of horror, series fiction tends to be about vampires. Maybe that's why Phil Rickman would like to have his latest series novels moved out of the horror ghetto and into the crime section, where they can stand alongside writers like Ian Rankin and Ruth Rendell. In terms of characterization, plot and quality of writing, Rickman shows much more similarity to these writers than to the bodice-ripping vampire serials that litter the American bookshelf. Rickman's latest 'spiritual procedural' is rife with local detail and by-the-book investigation of the human soul. A strong atmospheric feel for the "supernatural" is the natural result when the complex characters question themselves and the world around them.
In 'The Cure of Souls' English Spiritual Deliverance Expert Merrily Watkins finds herself in hop country, desperately trying to differentiate between lies, damn lies and supernatural events. The rot that has taken the crops has crept into the populace, as rural beauty is bulldozed into suburban convenience. Brash newcomers have moved into an ancient hop-kiln after the death of a relative, and demand to have the place exorcized, claiming that it is haunted. Merrily's daughter is bullied into a fake séance, with devastating psychological results for one of the participants. Ever reluctant to accept a supernatural culprit when a local yokel is more likely the cause, Merrily herself is pushed into ill-advised actions. The driving plot compels the reader to find out how or if she'll recover from her own foibles.
As Rickman moves his series forward, he's becoming increasingly clever about in his combinations of criminal and supernatural malice. He's also done a great job at creating a fallible, but likable investigator. Like Inspector Morse, Merrily Watkins makes a mistake or two in trying to solve the problems she's presented with. Here, Rickman uses the power of serial fiction wisely, bringing back favorite characters to help her help herself. Returning from the previous Watkins novels are Merrily's daughter Jane, now 16 and eager to embrace adulthood before she's really an adult. Rickman's version of Nick Drake, Lol is also around, as is record producer Prof Levin (from 'December'). Rickman does not overplay the familiarity card. If anything, readers tend to want to see more of the series characters than Rickman is ever willing to give them in one novel; certainly a wise choice. He makes up for this by creating deeper, more complex primary players to propel the plot.
The balance of supernatural versus crime in this novel is quite interesting. Merrily Watkins is, after all, a diocesan exorcist. But Rickman realizes that the supernatural arises out of the natural world, and he's an expert at portraying pervading supernatural events, the luminous as well as the disturbing. Though the events are mostly played out as a novel of crime and punishment, it's with a searing sense of vision that lifts the novel above both usual 'cop catches criminal' opus. And his detailed grounding of all events -- a wealth of background on the growing of hops, the Romany culture, or even the suburbanization of rural Wales -- likewise pulls 'The Cure of Souls' out of the realm of ghostbusting and into the realm of literature. The Merrily Watkins novels are far more than a guilty pleasure. They're literature you can look forward to.