December, a review
Phil Rickman is an English author with a background in music and a deep knowledge of the traditions, legends and atmospheres of that region of the British Isles straddling the England-Wales border.
In this territory Rickman has set his series of novels focused on the Anglican exorcist Merrily Watkins, mixing detective fiction with a supernatural that is more hinted at than made explicit. In this Rickman is admirable author in his ability to intercept two sectors of the public – that of horror and that of the British-style mystery (not necessarily a cozy), which are usually considered to be mutually exclusive.
Rickman is also the author of a series of mystery novels set in Elizabethan England and featuring Dr John Dee and the Earl of Essex as a team of sui generis, sort-of-X-files investigators.
At the same time, Rickman produced a number of stand-alone novels, more frankly horrific and generally ascribable to that typically British genre of “folk horror” or “rural horror” that is going through a renaissance in these last years1.
December belongs to this batch of stand-alone books. I originally reviewed it last year, for an Italian magazine – a friend borrowed me her copy, and I was able to meet the publisher’s expectations. I recently bought the book (together with four other stand-alone Rickman books), and here goes my review – suitably expanded and updated.
The plot: on December 8, 1980, the members of the rock band Philosopher’s Stone shut themselves up in the Abbey Studios of North Gwent, an ancient abbey in the Welsh countryside, a place with a sinister fame transformed into an engraving studio. They were there to record their new album.
Tradition says that the stones themselves of the abbey are cemented with blood, and this is precisely why Philosopher’s Stone chose this study: the idea is to record the new album in one single session, from dusk to dawn.
Nobody knows exactly what actually happened in that long night at the abbey, but when thirteen years after the tapes of the legendary and incomplete “Black Album” come to light, the band’s survivors decide to return to the studio and complete the work. And face what in 1980 turned the recording of the album into a nightmare and a tragedy.
It will end badly.
Rickman’s novel is built on a slow progression, punctuated by “strong” scenes, which prepare the revelation of the horrors hiding in the Abbey Studios. The structure is that typical of the haunted house or the “bad place”, often used in classic stories and movies, and made popular by Stephen King: you lock up a few, not necessarily pleasant characters in a cursed place, and open the dances.
Rickman stuffs the story with elements taken not only from English folklore, but also from musical folklore – beginning with the murder of John Lennon – and offers a bleak, disturbing, sometimes deeply horrifying story.
The atmosphere of the abbey, the tense and dysfunctional relationships between the members of the band, the comparison between the events of 1980 and those of 1993, contribute to generate a feeling of profound apprehension that is perhaps more satisfying and of greater impact than the mere blatant and in-your-face horrors, that at times can be more predictable.
An ending perhaps a little too by-the-numbers and characters that can be really unpleasant do not undermine the fun. December is popular horror, a fine example of high-end entertainment by one of the most underestimated exponents of the Anglo-Saxon rural horror of these years.
The book is quite recommended.