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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

‘Night After Night’ by Phil Rickman

Published by Corvus,
30 October 2014.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-869-2 (HB)

It’s hard to know where to begin with a Phil Rickman novel, there’s so much going on on so many levels. I suspect they’re something of an acquired taste, though it took me about one chapter of one book to acquire it, and these days I can hardly wait for the next one.

Night After Night is a standalone, if you don’t count his earlier works under the name Will Kingdom. It’s also a departure from the dozen chunky volumes featuring Merrily Watkins, village vicar and diocesan exorcist (though they don’t call it that any more) for which he is best known. But there are common themes, the key one being the point Rickman sets out to make every time he puts fingers to keyboard: there are more things in heaven and earth..., followed closely by don’t mess with what you don’t understand.

Briefly: a TV production company sets out to take the Big Brother concept to a whole new level, by placing seven people in a haunted house. That’s the hugely oversimplified version, of course; there’s a lot more involved than a portrayal of trash TV.

Whether it’s a murder mystery is open to conjecture, but as a psychological thriller it’s as good as the genre gets. The first half sets the scene: a half-derelict Tudor mansion with a grim history and even grimmer location close to an ancient burial ground; it’s depicted richly and in the kind of half-tones shot with occasional colour that creates exactly the right ambience for the mystery to come. That’s mystery in the old sense. It also introduces a large cast of characters, each of who combines a kind of symbolic representation of, well, something, with still coming over as a living, breathing person. Mostly still living and breathing, that is.

Then, having drawn you in and lulled you into a sense of maybe something a bit spooky about to happen when the seven ‘residents’ enter the house, Rickman starts to ramp up the tension. And that’s his greatest strength of all: building atmosphere, playing on the half-buried memories, fears and uncertainties of both characters and readers, making you believe, if you didn’t before, that there really are more things in heaven and earth than we could possibly dream of, and that to say it’s dangerous to get in their way or exert any control over them is to understate the case by a vast margin.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the narrative takes a long, hard look at the whole operation behind a reality TV programme, and shows how the process is controlled and manipulated into the shape the producers think will pull in the biggest viewing figures. Except in this case the producers may not be as firmly in control as they think.

Stephen King said, Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie. Rarely has that been more accurately achieved than in this book.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Phil Rickman was born in Lancashire. He has spent most of his adult life in Wales and the Border country, where he won a couple of awards for his work as a BBC radio and TV news reporter.
His first novel, Candlenight (1991) was discovered by the novelist and fiction-editor Alice Thomas Ellis. He followed it with four other stand-alone ghost stories before the Merrily Watkins series began with The Wine of Angels.
Phil lives near Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Carol – they met as  journalists on the same paper .. He writes and presents the book programme Phil The Shelf on BBC Radio Wales.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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