Phil Rickman adds a supernatural edge to his mystery novels

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While new writers are told to write about what they know, Phil Rickman has made a career out of writing about what he doesn’t know. 

“I wanted to write novels which didn’t attempt to understand the paranormal or mould it into human shapes, but to show what happens in people’s perceptions,” he explains during a recent phone interview from his home near Hay-on-Wye, Wales.

To accomplish this, Rickman placed his characters in situations where they are faced with things that go bump in the night, and sometimes the day, forcing them and the reader to look at long-held belief and value systems. But while his characters are allowed to draw conclusions on the existence of a god or goddess, Rickman does not. “I don’t know. Neither does the pope or the queen of the witches. But the possibility of a benevolent super-being has to be more appealing than the thought of the most powerful entity in the known universe being the president of the USA.”

The value of his not knowing comes through in his writing, making his characters sympathetic and readers loyal. But attracting those readers in the first place has been the challenge.

“When I first started to get novels published, in the 1990s, horror fiction had just been through its biggest-ever decade and it was starting to get washed up,” he says. “It was bloated, loaded with ridiculous fantasy.”

Publishers, he says, wanted to make him the next master of horror, but he wanted to be something different.  “They want the next Stephen King—bigger, more spectacular, more gross, more overblown. Of course, I was the new kid on the block, just grateful to be published finally, so I kept fairly quiet and tried to work around it. It only took 15 years.”

Now his books sit firmly in the crime and mystery sections of bookstore shelves, a category more suited to them, he says. “There’s always a crime and there are mysteries, in the original sense. And one kind of mystery might be solved but the other almost certainly won’t.”

This uncertainty is especially true in his most popular series, which follows a female deliverance minister (a more current title for an exorcist), living in a small town on the Welsh border. “Merrily Watkins, for example, is a human being who happens to get paid by the Church of England to look into the problems of people whose lives are disrupted by what they think might be psychic phenomena. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they turn out to be deluded, but mostly it isn’t so simple.”

There are no quick or simple answers offered in Rickman’s novels, in plot or character relationships, creating a real-life authenticity to them, which he credits to his journalism background.

“As a news reporter you see a lot of people during bad times in their lives, and how they handle disaster—which is usually far more quietly than you see in movies. And you see how humour surfaces, even in the worst situations… Essentially, if you don’t have real, flawed characters with real, dysfunctional relationships, nobody’s going to be interested in them.”

Rickman spent 10 years as a radio and television reporter, covering the central region of Wales for the BBC prior to turning to fiction. It was during that time he was inspired to write what would become his first published novel, Candlenight (1991), he says. “Welsh-language activists were burning down holiday cottages owned by English people who they saw as undermining the Welsh culture.”

He says he had always wanted to be a novelist and had only got waylaid by his jobs with newspapers, radio, and television. But these were distractions he doesn’t regret, because journalism made him a different person—someone who sought the story, cutting to the interesting stuff. “It gives you a sense of balance, too,” he says. “You see both sides of an argument. Which, in a novel, means seeing the bad guy’s point of view. Even if it’s one that most people would find abhorrent, you have to make yourself feel sympathy for it.”

The experience of having been a journalist, he says, has governed the way he develops a novel. “I start in a real place and dig for stories—past and present, history and folklore, contemporary squabbles—and out of that heap come the dynamics for a novel.”

These skills were honed in seven stand-alone novels, two written under the name of Will Kingdom, and two young-adult novels published under the name of Thom Madley, before finding their stride in the Rev. Watkins series. The 12th book in the series, The Magus of Hay, was released November 7 in the United Kingdom and will be released in Canada on December 24.

For this novel, Rickman decided he wanted to try a streamlined approach with fewer subplots, and some of the characters familiar to readers, like Watkins’s daughter Jane and her on-again-off-again lover Lol Robinson, do not appear in this story. Rickman takes Watkins out of Ledwardine, her country parish in Herefordshire, and temporarily moves her to Hay-on-Wye, where she meets two characters, Robin and Betty Thorogood, who readers will remember from A Crown of Lights (2001).

While writing the Watkins series, Rickman tried his hand at two historical novels featuring John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, published in 2010 and 2012. For his next novel, Night After Night, he will be switching again, choosing neither Watkins nor Dee as the main character. “And that’s all I can say, because everything except the title is likely to change between now and publication.”

But while Rickman may want to experiment with styles and subject matter with his novels, his Rev. Watkins series characters seem to be taking on a life of their own. Gomer Parry T-shirts, based on the backhoe operator who makes an appearance in most of the books, are for sale on Rickman’s website. Lol Robinson CDs are also available for purchase through that same website. Both real-world products were the result of readers contacting Rickman and offering their services.

While the T-shirts were a simple collaboration, the music has proved to be more dynamic.

Allan Watson, a musician from Glasgow, picked up on the parts of songs credited to Robinson’s character in the Watkins books and offered to use the lyrics and compose a song for Rickman. Soon Watson and Rickman were writing and recording new lyrics, resulting in the production of two complete albums presented as if they were the fictional Robinson’s. When the band plays live at local events, Rickman appears as the fictional Dr. Samedi, a character from his novel The Wine of Angels.

A third album, Abbey Tapes: The Exorcism, has been produced to link with Rickman’s novel December, which was first published in 1994 and is scheduled for rerelease this month.

For readers having trouble separating fact from fiction, Rickman recommends Merrily’s Border, a nonfiction work in which he reveals the real location, history, and folklore behind the novels. Illustrative photographs are provided by John Mason, who also did the cover photos for many of the Merrily novels.

With an industry in flux and publishers struggling to survive, Rickman says it’s sometimes hard but not impossible to enjoy the job he does. “Most of the time you’re struggling towards the point, close to the end, when what seemed like a pile of scrap metal suddenly becomes a working machine. Then you experience the kind of euphoria that, for a week or so, makes it all worthwhile.”

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