Merrily Watkins faces multiple occult threats in her fourth outing
In Herefordshire's hop-growing country, where the river flows as dark as beer, a converted kiln is the scene of a savage murder. When the local vicar refuses to help its new owners cope with the aftermath, diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins is sent in by the Bishop. Already involved in the case of a schoolgirl whose mother thinks she's possessed by evil, the hesitant Merrily is drawn into a deadly tangle of deceit, corruption, and sexual menace as she uncovers the secrets of a village with a past as twisted as the hop-bines which once enclosed it.
About the Author
Phil Rickman is the author of the Merrily Watkins Mystery series, which includes The Remains of an Altar, The Fabric of Sin, and To Dream of the Dead.
Read an Excerpt
The Cure of Souls
By Phil Rickman
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2001 Phil Rickman
All rights reserved.
In the warm, milky night, Lol was leaning against a five-barred gate, listening for the River Frome. It couldn't be more than six yards away, but you'd never know; this was the nature of the Frome.
Crossing the wooden bridge, he'd looked down and seen nothing. That was OK. It was a small and secretive river that, in places, didn't flow so much as seep, dark as beer, obscured by ground-hugging bushes and banks of willowherb. Already Lol felt a deep affinity with the Frome; he just didn't want to step into it in the dark, that was all.
'River?' Prof Levin had said vaguely this morning. 'That's a river? I thought it was some kind of sodding drainage ditch.'
Which had only made Lol more drawn to it. Later, he'd sat down in the sun with his old Washburn guitar and started to assemble a wistful song.
Did you ever think you'd reach the sea,
Aspiring to an estuary.
But – hey – who could take that seriously ...?
Yeah, who? Like, wasn't he supposed to have turned his back on all this for good?
Now here was Prof Levin, forever on at him to give it another go. And Prof didn't give up easily, so Lol had gone wandering out into this milky night feeling guilty and confused, nerves quivering, jagged pieces of his past sticking out of him like shards of glass from a smashed mirror.
Seeking the unassuming tranquillity of the night-time river, nothing more than that. The modern countryside, Prof Levin had insisted this morning, was one big sham.
'Close to nature? Balls! This is heavy industrial, Laurence. Guys in baseball caps driving machinery you could build motorways with – six-speaker stereo in the cab, blasting jungle. These lanes ain't wide enough for the bastards any more.'
Grabbing hold of the bottom of Lol's T-shirt, Prof had towed him to the window, overlooking someone else's long meadow sloping to the bank of the River Frome.
'Week or two, they'll be out there haymaking ... techno-hay-making. Come September they start on the hops over there – and that's all mechanized. Take a look at the size of those tractors, tell me this ain't heavy industry. They don't even stop at night! Got lamps on them like frigging great searchlights – doing shift work now! Who ever hears the cock crow any more? This, Laurence ... this is the new rural. And here's me padding out the frigging walls to double-thickness on account of I don't want to disturb them.'
Prof Levin grinning ruefully through his white nail-brush beard: a shaven-headed, wiry man of over sixty years old – precisely how far over nobody would know until he was dead and not necessarily even then. When Lol had first known him, Prof had been the world's most reliable recording engineer, always in work, and then, after forty years in the business, he'd emerged as a revered producer, an icon, an oracle.
And now a bucolic oracle. Disdainful of belated acclaim, Prof had quit the mainstream industry. He would produce only material that was worth producing, and only when he was in the mood. He would create for himself a bijou studio, a private centre of excellence in some deeply unfashionable corner of the sticks. Knight's Frome? Yeah, that sounded about right. Who the hell had ever heard of Knight's Frome?
Who indeed? Down south, there was at least one other River Frome, only much bigger. The Frome Valley here in east Herefordshire had just the one small market town and a string of villages and hamlets – Bishop's Frome, Canon Frome, Halmond's Frome and little Knight's Frome, all sunk into rich, red loam and surrounded by orchards and vineyards and hop-yards under the Malverns, Middle England's answer to mountains.
Not that Prof appeared to care about any of this; that it was obscure was enough. In fact, the real reason he was here, rather than the west of Ireland or somewhere, was that an old friend, a one-time professional bass-player and cellist, was currently vicar of Knight's Frome. It was this unquestionably honest guy who had identified for Prof a suitable property: a cottage with a stable block and pigsties but no land for either horses or pigs, therefore on sale at an unusually reasonable price. And Prof had shrugged: Whatever. He had no basic desire to communicate with the landscape – or with people, for that matter, except through headphones.
Unless, of course, he needed help. Arriving out here, marooned among crates of equipment, Prof had put out an SOS to every muso and sparks he knew within a fifty-mile radius – only to find that most of them had moved on, some to the next life.
In the end, it was only Simon, the vicar, and Lol Robinson, formerly songwriter and second guitar with the long-defunct band Hazey Jane, now on holiday from his college course in psychotherapy. Not that Lol was any good with wiring, but that wasn't important; it was mainly about making the tea and listening to Prof grouch and taking the blame for malfunctions. This afternoon they'd installed the final wall-panels, and tested the new acoustics by recording – in the absence of anything more challenging – some of Lol's more recent numbers.
This had continued into the night when, at some point, Prof had stopped cursing and wrenching out leads and replacing mikes ... and sat back for a while behind the exposed skeleton of his mixing board, just listening to the music.
And then had stood up and stomped across the studio floor, positioning himself menacingly in the doorway of the booth where Lol sat with the old Washburn on his knees.
'Laurence! You little bastard, stop right there.'
Lol looking up timidly.
'Listen to me.' Prof glowered. 'How long, for fuck's sake, have you been sitting on this stuff?'
It was past eleven now, but the night was still awash with pale light, forming long lakes in the northern sky. To the south, a plane tracked across the starscape like a slow pulse on a monitor.
In the middle distance was a round tower, like some story-book castle, except that the tip of its conical hat was oddly skewed. There was a window-glow visible in the tower, unsteady like lantern light. Lol was stilled by the unreality of the moment, half feeling that if he were to climb over the farm gate and walk towards that tower, the entire edifice would begin to dissolve magically into the grey-black woodland behind.
It was, he concluded, one of those nights for nothing being entirely real.
From the shadowed field beyond the gate, he heard the slow, seismic night-breathing of cattle, so loud and full and resonant that it might have been the respiration system of the whole valley. The air was dense with pollen and sweet with warm manure, and Lol experienced a long moment of calm and the nearness of something that was vast and enfolding and brought him close to weeping.
At which point he cut the fantasy. The fairy-tale castle hardened into a not-so-ancient hop kiln. There were dozens of them around the valley, most of them converted into homes.
Sad. Not some rich, mystical experience, just another bogstandard memory of the womb.
... Because therapy, Laurence, is the religion of the new millennium. And we're the priests.
Lol gripped the top rail of the gate until his hands hurt. Prof was exaggerating, of course. His material wasn't that strong.
Anyway, Lol was too long out of it. The most he'd done in years had been occasional demos, for the purpose of flogging a few songs to better-known artists – makeweight stuff for albums, nothing special. It was an income-trickle but it wasn't a career, it wasn't a life, and he thought he'd accepted the reality of that a long time ago.
Back in January, he'd enrolled on this course for trainee psychotherapists, the only one he could find still with any available places, up in Wolverhampton. It made a surreal kind of sense to Lol, though he didn't share the irony of it with any of the other students, certainly not with the tutors.
Without actually saying therapy, shmerapy, Prof had managed to convey a scepticism well over the threshold of contempt.
'I can't believe you waste your time on this! You want to take money for persuading the gullible to remember how they were abused by their daddies, then they go home and slash their wrists? It's like I say to Simon: you're just being a vicar for you, not for them. Who gets married any more? Who wants to hear a sermon, sip lemonade at the vicarage fête? If you want to reach people, cure people, calm people, and you have it in you to give them beautiful music, from the heart ... then, Jesus, this is the real therapy, the real spirituality. Forget this counselling bullshit! Who're you really gonna change?'
Of course, Prof knew all about Lol's history on the other side of psychiatry, brought about by early exposure to the music business – the blurred fairground ride ending in half-lit caverns with drifting, white-coated ghosts and gliding trolleys, syringes, pills.
Medication: the stripped-down NHS was a sick system, drug-dependent. It made sense to Lol that he should be using his own experience to help keep other vulnerable people out of the system. Otherwise, the medication years were just a damp, rotten hole in his life.
Prof knew all about this, just didn't accept the logic.
'Listen to me, boy, I have strong contacts these days ... people who trust me, who tend to act on what I say, and I'm telling you, you gotta take these songs into the market place.'
'Well, sure,' Lol said obligingly. 'Anybody who wants one —'
'No! They'll want you! Listen to me. I can get you a good tour —'
Lol had been backing away into the booth at this point, the guitar held in front of him like a riot shield, Prof pursuing him, hands spread wide.
'Laurence, you're older now, you know the score, you know all the traps. I'm telling you honestly: you don't do this now, you'll be a very embittered old man one day. Jesus, what am I saying, one day? How long you been out of it now – ten years, fifteen? That's three whole generations in this business! How much time you really got left? How long now before the looks start to fade, before the winsome little-boy-lost turns into some sad, wrinkled —? Listen to me!'
'I can't ... I can't tour.' Face it: he couldn't even play all that well any more.
'Right, let's see, now.' Prof went on like he hadn't heard. 'It would have to be as support, the first time. But supporting somebody tasteful – don't worry about that, it can be arranged. REM, Radiohead ... all these guys admit to being influenced by your work. You're a cult ... OK, a minor cult. But a cult is still a cult ...'
'Prof?' Lol was resting the guitar on his trainers, his fingers among its machine-heads. 'Be honest – you don't even know that's true, do you?'
'The hell does that matter? Laurence, I apologize in advance if this sounds immodest, but if I'm the one spreading it around, everyone is going to believe it, therefore it becomes the truth.'
'I can't tour.' Lol stood with his back against the partition wall again, his breathing becoming harder at the very thought of on the road.
'You can tour! You need to tour ... this will kick-start your confidence. You're just using this therapy shit as some kind of buffer against the real world. You're institutionalized and you don't even know it. It's like ... like so many schoolteachers are really just kids who were afraid to leave school. Believe me, Laurence.'
And part of Lol did believe him, because Kenneth 'Prof' Levin had been down in the half-lit caverns, too – in his case alcoholism, the destruction of a good marriage.
Lol recalled the buzz he'd felt when he'd had the message to call Prof, a couple of weeks ago – around the same time he was concluding that knowing the difference between cognitive therapy and humanistic therapy didn't make either of them any more effective. In fact, the day after his senior tutor had told him, not with irony but with something approaching pride: Therapy, Laurence, is the religion of the third millennium. And we're the priests – the voice slick with self-belief, after a few glasses in the wine bar down the road from the college. Everybody needs a church. A confessional. Forgiveness. This senior tutor, this high priest, was younger than Lol, maybe thirty-four.
'All right!' Prof Levin had finally backed off. 'Enough. We'll talk about this again. For starters, we just do the album.'
Prof had spread his arms magnanimously. With his own studio set up, he was at last able to make these decisions without consulting anyone in a suit.
And Lol had thanked him for the offer – very profusely, obviously, because having Prof Levin produce an album for you was kind of like having Spielberg take on your screenplay – but then pointed out, reasonably enough, that he had only four songs: not quite half an album.
Prof had smiled beatifically through his white, nail-brush beard.
'You have the whole summer, my son. This summer ... is yours.'
And he had shambled smugly away to his room in the adjacent cottage, leaving Lol to switch everything off before climbing to his own camp bed in one of the old haylofts.
Like he was really going to sleep after this?
Instead, he'd stumbled out, bemused, into the warm night, to commune with the Frome. But the river was already asleep and that was how he ended up following the track running down a line of poplars and out the other side, close to where the hopkilns stood. The sky was now obscured by a tangle of trees, and he was aware of a high, piercing hum that somehow translated itself into Everybody needs a church. A confessional. Forgiveness.
Not exactly the wisest analogy to hang on Lol who, in his late teens, had seen his parents find religion, watched them being swept away on waves of foaming fundamentalist madness, causing them to reject the Godless kid playing the devil's music – the kid who would always remember coming home one weekend to find that those two small mantelpiece photos of himself as a toddler had been replaced by framed postcards of Jesus. Which was probably how it had started – the alienation.
And then – in just this last year – a surprise development. Lol's fear and resentment of the Church had been fatally compromised by encounters with a priest called Merrily Watkins who lived and worked, as it happened, less than twenty miles from here ... but if this was another reason for coming back to Herefordshire he wasn't going to admit it, least of all to himself. Their last meeting had followed events so dark that maybe she wouldn't want to be reminded.
He felt a sharp pain below his knee and stopped, feeling suddenly out of breath. He realized he'd been running, like he sometimes did to try and overtake a dilemma, to put an impending decision behind him. He must have veered from the path and now he was in the middle of an unknown wood and there were brambles tangled around his legs.
Wrong turning, somehow. It was easy enough to do, even in the daytime, even in countryside you thought you knew. In the middle of this unknown, unmanaged wood, snagged with hawthorn, he heard his T-shirt rip, and he stood there, shaking his head.
Lost again. Story of his life.
Knight's Frome was a scattered hamlet with no real centre, so it wasn't as if he could look around for a cluster of lights. Or even listen for the river. All he could hear was the humming: a plaintive sound that rose and fell and pulsed as if a melody was trying to escape.
Lol turned, walked back the way he'd come, putting a hand up to his glasses, pushing them tight onto the bridge of his nose; losing your specs was not something you did in a wood at night. When he took his hand away, he saw the trees and bushes had fallen away and there was now a clear space up ahead. A small yellow light appeared, not too bright, a little unsteady, with a black cone above it: a witch's hat. The kiln tower again.
Excerpted from The Cure of Souls by Phil Rickman. Copyright © 2001 Phil Rickman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Loved it! Going back to the beginning to read them all!
I have read this series in order and have to say that this is my favorite so far. The more you get to know the characters, the better the books get! Read them in order, even if some are hard to find.