joysilence: (Strix Castanops)
[personal profile] joysilence posting in [community profile] darkling_tales
Looking back through my old Ghosts and Scholars newsletters a few weeks ago, I chanced on an article by Steve Duffy (himself a great author of supernatural fiction) warmly recommending a book called The Fabric Of Sin, by Phil Rickman. It's the latest in a series of novels inhabiting the borderland between crime fiction and supernatural horror, all dealing with a young lady vicar, Merrily Watkins, who is employed by the Church of England to advise in matters of 'deliverance' and carry out exorcisms. Duffy had singled out this book because it is packed full of references to M R James and in fact the plot hinges on a real-life experience the author once had at the sinister Garway Church. Obviously, when I read this, I had to find out more! I ended up buying two Watkins books - The Fabric Of Sin, and some time later an older one, A Crown Of Lights.



I was not disappointed. The Fabric Of Sin is an intensely readable novel about Merrily's attempt to exorcise an old house standing on Duchy land after one of the plasterers in charge of renovation is scared out of the place by the sight of a 'face of crumpled linen'. These words will be familiar to anyone who's read the James tale O Whistle And I'll You Come To You, though in this case the entity is made out of crumpled polythene. Merrily performs a quick blessing of house and plasterer, and when she visits the plasterers' house and sees an M R James collection gracing a bookshelf, she soon concludes that the woman has simply made the whole thing up due to some sort of mental disturbance. But when the latter is found dead - having seemingly killed her husband beforehand - Merrily's conscience forces her to break rank and do some digging of her own, paying special attention to Garway Church, a notorious Templar stronghold in ancient times. One alarming discovery follows another and soon the vicar is caught up in a web of deceit, age-old family feuds, local mysteries and evil from both sides of the veil.

James' encounter with the genius locii of Garway Church is itself interesting enough, and his account of the event is featured verbatim in the novel. Rickman also comes up with some fairly hair-raising hauntings himself - though typically, many of them are later explained by natural causes. That said, I agree with Duffy's verdict that the Merrily Watkins novels are first and foremost occult novels, with a strong flavour of police procedural crime fiction. Sadly, the books always appear in the 'Crime' shelves of all bookshops, never the 'Horror', which explains why it took me so long to discover these! The heroine is likeable - though she does have a tendency to be a 'doormat', according to her teenage daughter Jane, an enthusiastic pagan who naturally thinks she is always right. At times Jane comes dangerously close to a caricature of a teenage girl, complete with endless up-speak and speech stuffed with 'like's and 'whatever's, but overall the tension between her and her mother lends life to the novel. Merrily is even allowed a boyfriend, the passive guitarist Lol. Meanwhile, the Church of England is portrayed as an institution that is generally benign, but also rife with the religious equivalent of office politics.

But how does it rate as a whodunnit? Well, the final denouement did take me by surprise, though I wouldn't describe myself as a connoisseur of the subgenre as I generally prefer the psychological 'whydunnits' of authors like Ruth Rendell. Interestingly, I did have a weird and seemingly unjustified feeling about the character who turns out to be a fiend in human form, but I pushed that aside as later events made my suspicion seem unrealistic! I think that reflects more on Rickman's way with the subtle hint than any psychic abilities on my part though ;) The reader is never obviously manipulated into forming strong judgements on any character. Though Rickman isn't above using the oldest tricks in the book to make the novel unputdownable - after a while the hackneyed old device of ending every chapter on the brink of an enormous revelation, then switching to a completely different plot strand at the start of the next one, started to get on my nerves.

I also took issue with Rickman's technique of revealing the inner voices of all his characters by simply writing down the thoughts that occur to them in their own voice (as opposed to using an omniscient narrator.) This can be a handy shortcut to how the characters are feeling and the way their minds work, but it also leads to short, fragmented sentences with none of the appealing 'flow' you might get from more measured prose. Rickman does this too often. I also felt that the constant shifting of perspective from one character to the next damaged the final scenes and I remain a bit confused about what exactly went on in one of the last scenes. Which is never good. And finally, I also got a bit fed up by the amount of time Merrily spends on the phone! Although most of the conversations she has are lively enough to keep the reader entertained, it would be nice to see her get out a bit more!

Nonetheless, A Fabric Of Sin is an agreeable way to pass the time - as long as you like crime - and it comes fairly close to being a must-read for M R James buffs, besides being crammed with fascinating themes. I'll review A Crown Of Lights another day, because this post is getting quite long enough as it is! In the meantime, here's a fairly interesting interview with Rickman on the CounterCulture website!

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