Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
As of 2021, Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series runs to fifteen books, a short story, and a photobook describing some of the locations to feature in the series. The books are set in rural Herefordshire and revolve around a female vicar, her friends, and their tendency to run into a variety of occult menaces including ghosts, demons, and satanic cults.
I decided to begin the Watching the Detectives strand by writing about the Merrily Watkins books as they are quite unlike any other paranormal investigation story. If this were an elevator and you were a cigar-chomping Hollywood producer, I would pitch the series by asking you to imagine what it would be like if Miss Marple joined the cast of the Archers as village exorcist.
To create is to make decisions. Making decisions involves not just selecting the option you want to pursue, but also ruling out all of the options you don’t want to pursue. Thus, the act of creation is not just a series of positive choices but also a series of rejections, narrowing down the range of possible outcomes until you arrive at your preferred range of probabilities.
Under this vision of the creative process, genres function a bit like the presets you get with a piece of editing software: In principle, there are few limits on what you can do with your photograph, film, or piece of music but presets get the ball rolling by narrowing the range of options down to a list of recognisable starting places.
Genres are not static things, they collapse, and re-constitute themselves as fashions evolve and markets shift. While it is traditional to think of individual self-expression as the fundamental engine of artistic change, the logic of capitalism demands that individual creativity be filtered through commercial institutions such as galleries, record labels, studios, and publishing houses. We’d like to believe that creating something new and original would be sufficient to get our work in front of an audience but in order to access commercial institutions you need to be legible to these institutions and that means never straying too far from a range of recognisable presets.
What this means in practice is that a single story can be expressed in a number of different ways depending upon which institutions are trying to use it to make money. For example, the Spanish exploitation film director Jesus Franco would sometimes shoot multiple versions of the same scenes because he understood that while horror distributors would buy a film about Lesbian vampires as long as it contained a few bloody set-pieces, the exact same story could be sold to porn distributors if you took out the gore and replaced it with explicit sex.
Nowhere is the influence of commercial institutions upon genre story-telling more obvious than in the different manifestations of the paranormal investigator: Horror emphasises the monstrous nature of the paranormal element, Fantasy emphasises the battle to overcome the supernatural menace, Crime emphasises the process of investigation, and Romance emphasises either the erotic potential of the supernatural Other or the relationships between the people doing the investigating.
The uniqueness of the Merrily Watkinsnovels can be explained by the fact that their publisher is not tied to a particular genre. According to their website, Corvus sells commercial fiction that includes crime as well as SFF and women’s fiction. This makes perfect sense as the Merrily Watkins books contains elements of all three genre traditions: Like a lot of fiction marketed at women, they devote a lot of time to exploring the characters’ relationships (romantic and otherwise). Like a lot of books marketed as horror, their plots revolve around hauntings, possessions, and sinister cults. Like a lot of books published under the rubric of crime fiction, they have a very clear sense of place and most of their narrative energy comes from the need to solve a mystery.
The result of this genre cocktail is a gorgeous series of novels about a woman who responds to the untimely death of her husband by deciding to become a vicar. Naïve, inexperienced, conflicted, and completely unprepared for the political realities of church and village life, Merrily winds up becoming deliverance minister to her local diocese. Though the books acknowledge that deliverance ministers are effectively exorcists, Merrily herself is somewhat sniffy about the comparison and insists that her role is rather more complex than cinematic depictions of bell, book, and candle.
The series does feature demons and Merrily is often required to expel them but the books tend to present the supernatural as an intriguing combination of social problem, individual failing, and supernatural presence so Merrily does not so much fight monsters as deal with expressions of supernatural weirdness that present themselves as long buried traumas that suddenly resurface and set about distorting the local community.
One set of tropes I really dislike is when exorcism and demons wind up serving as Trojan horses for a weird form of Catholic Realism whereby it turns out that modernity and science were a huge mistake because Mother Church was right all along. Some works of horror evade this problem by embracing a form of postmodern pluralism whereby Catholicism is merely one of several (presumably incomplete) bodies of occult knowledge. Despite starring an Anglican Vicar and devoting quite a lot of space to the internal workings of the Anglican Church, the Merrily Watkins novels never feel completely Christian. In fact, Pullman’s tendency to have his ghosts and demons express themselves through the human world gives his presentation of the supernatural an almost pagan feel… these monsters are not so much perversions of natural law as expressions of a deeper physical reality.
The books’ highly abstracted vision of the supernatural works because Pullman puts a lot of work not only into his characters but also into the communities they inhabit. These are books in which you rarely see the monster themselves but you see the consequences of their presence in the actions of ordinary people. Pullman’s decision to focus on the more mundane elements of a paranormal investigator’s life is one of several reasons why the Merrily Watkins novels offer great inspirational material for gamers.
One of the ways in which Call of Cthulhu differs from other table-top RPGs is its support for relatively mundane player characters. I say “relatively” as while the rules do allow you to play farmers and office workers, most players tend to gravitate towards such genre-friendly archetypes as the intrepid private investigator and the academic with knowledge of forbidden lore. The Merrily Watkins novels demonstrate what a Call of Cthulhu session might be like if your players really did play normal members of the public. Indeed, the older I get, the more I realise that competence is less a question of skill as it is of experience and quite often the barrier to getting things done is not so much the ability to do things as possessing a notion of what it is that needs to be done. Despite being aggressively mundane, the characters in the Merrily Watkins novels all have skills and capacities that help advance the plot. Sometimes this capacity is nothing more than being so naïve that you are forever stumbling into weirdness but other times it’s something like having access to a car, a spare bedroom, or enough money to actually help someone out when they’re in trouble. In fact, the closest the series comes to an action hero is an elderly man who runs a tractor rental business and his super power is literally just a willingness to break the law and take action regardless of the consequences. We like to believe that Call of Cthulhu offers a different gaming experience to the power fantasies of D&D but Merrily Watkins is one of the few paranormal investigation stories to lean into the idea of normal people dealing with the supernatural.
Another thing I love about the Merrily Watkins novels is their absolute commitment to localism. Since its creation, Call of Cthulhu materials have tended to favour globetrotting campaigns with exotic locations and one-shot adventures set in New England. Pullman’s novels are a welcome response to this as they show quite how much fun you can have by setting a story not just in the real world but in your local community. Pullman’s stories are full of the kinds of stories that animate life in the British countryside: new housing developments, hospitals closing, changes in the economy, changes in community leadership, village life being hollowed out by people buying up property for holiday homes. Pullman interweaves these issues with his treatment of the occult and so makes the occult feel more real, more present, and more relatable. The horror that hits hardest is not the one that exists over there in some fictionalised past, it’s the horror that lives with us and shapes our lives without our even realising. The Merrily Watkins novels fulfil the dramatic potential of Call of Cthulhu’s decision to focus on normal people, they offer horror without the filters of fantasy.