Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Ghost stories, mysteries, and England. Life is good.

I'm a bit of an Anglophile. Okay, more than a bit. When I was a child I repeatedly tried to persuade my parents to pack up and move us all to England. Oddly enough they wouldn't cooperate, so I consoled myself by reading books set in England.

I especially enjoy those books with a strong sense of place, not just of England as a whole but of the smaller regions of England in which they are set. Which is one of the reasons I was delighted to discover the Merrily Watkins series of mysteries by Phil Rickman. They take place primarily in Herefordshire, a county which borders Wales and is known for its black and white half timbered villages and for being the most rural of all the counties.

It isn't only location that draws me to this series. The main characters are sympathetic souls, good people but not perfect. There's Merrily Watkins, a widowed Church of England vicar, who is often too kind for her own good and who isn't even trying to give up smoking, and Jane, her precocious teenage daughter, sarcastic, prickly, yet endearing. And finally there's Lol Robinson, a bruised and fragile musician trying to make his way back into the workaday world. They are joined by a varying cast of supporting characters, some of whom I'd love to have as friends, and others of whom range from mildly annoying to downright duplicitous. Not to mention an occasional villain who is frighteningly worse than that!

In the second books of the series, Midwinter of the Spirit, Merrily is appointed the Deliverance Consultant for the diocese of Hereford. That's a very PC way of saying exorcist, so ghostly presences are always a pivotal part of the plot. That's fine with me; I love a good ghost story so long as it's not too scary. And in these books, it's humans who do the real harm and are the most scary.

But what I enjoy most about the series is discovering which aspects of each story are true and finding out more about them: which characters are or were real people, which things actually happened, which places actually exist. And now I have to make an admission. I very rarely read introductions or credits. Prologues and epilogues are different; they're still part of the story. But introductions and credits are outside the story, and I've always considered them a waste of time. So I'd already read several books in the series before I realized how much of the real world Rickman incorporates in his work. The author states which elements are real in the credits at the end of each book, and if I'd read them, I would have known this a lot sooner. But the gradual realization was kind of fun too, like finding a second gift in a box I thought I'd already emptied.

Among the various things I've been led to investigate are:

the ghost stories associated with Ludlow Castle

the controversy over which location inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Baskerville Hall (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

the ghost stories of M. R. James and his relationship to Herefordshire

the poetry of Thomas Traherne

the folklore of Herefordshire especially as related to apples

Romany folklore

a book on leylines written in 1925, The Old Straight Track (I previously assumed the concept of leylines originated in the sixties or seventies)

the music of Nick Drake who died too young in 1974

the Knights Templar's church in the village of Garway and its nearby dovecote which dates to 1326 and for reasons unknown has 666 nesting holes

the "Hungarian suicide song"

I've also learned what a donkey jacket is, the meanings of various British colloquialisms, and that yew trees can live well over a thousand years and become hollow inside as they age. Sometimes one thing leads to another, and I discover all sorts of interesting things that aren't in the books at all. One of these is the Herefordshire Field Names Database where you can do a search for all the fields (yes, fields, as in "lower forty") in the county with historic names relating to apples or blacksmiths or leys or... and be shown on a map where the fields are. Isn't the Internet wonderful?

The books in the series are:
The Wine of Angels
Midwinter of the Spirit
Crown of Lights (not owned by the library)
The Cure of Souls
The Lamp of the Wicked
Prayer of the Night Shepherd (not owned by the library)
The Smile of a Ghost
The Remains of an Altar
The Fabric of Sin

Happy reading!

No comments: