Phil Rickman, 1994
On December 8, 1980 – the date John Lennon was murdered – a group of psychically gifted musicians called Philosopher’s Stone meets at a spooky abbey to record an album. Things go south, and fourteen years later the group meets again at the abbey to finish what they started, falling prey to the seven-year cycle of evil that haunts the abbey.
While this book is well-crafted and engrossing, it’s also generally unpleasant. This is not the subtle whisper of ghostly fear with which we are treated in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series; it’s full-on horror on a par with Stephen King.
December is skillfully written, and Rickman is, as always, quite the world-builder. As an expert in folklore in the geographical areas in which he places his characters, he provides a lot of jumping-off places for further research, and there is no question that this man is a gifted author.
The book is narrated by British actor Sean Barrett. He is well-regarded in the area of audio book narration, but I’m used to the very calm, understated narration of the Merrily Watkins series, by two different female narrators. Barrett’s narration is jarring in contrast; he’s fine until he starts interpreting dialogue, which comes across as cheesy and heavyhanded. It was the same with The Man in the Moss, another Rickman title published the same year with at least one of the same characters. I have to wonder if I would feel the same about this book if its characters had been represented by another more subdued narrator – and I do recognize that this is personal preference. I need my audio narrators to maintain an even enough volume that I don’t have to turn down the sound at moments of high drama.
The print version of December had been out of print for years when it was re-released with a companion CD of songs from the book, theoretically sung by Philosopher’s Stone. The audiobook has several songs as well; I don’t know that they are songs from the CD. Those who love the book love the CD. I didn’t like the insertion of musical tracks dropped into the middle of my audio experience.
The depiction of the supernatural physical violation of one character is repugnant to me. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be equally unpleasant to others, and I can’t begin to imagine why an author would want to plant the episode in the minds of his readers – because some of the content really is foul. To be fair, it wouldn’t be so icky for the reader on a visceral level if Rickman were a less skilled writer, but still.
The episode is vile enough that the reader could miss its more subtle undertone of homophobia which is present throughout the book. There are three male characters who are either gay or bisexual, and each of them is depicted as either evil or damaged in some way.
Rickman’s depiction of female characters is spotty. I can’t even begin to count the number of references to the breasts of one particularly well-endowed woman, the wife of one of the band members and a successful entrepreneur. This is not typical Rickman and it puzzles me, as no other female character is treated with such overt objectification. Other female characters in December tend to be partners of male main characters rather than main characters in their own right, with the exception of singer Moira Cairns.
My impressions in summary: skillfully written, badly narrated, misogynistic and homophobic. Good world building, so-so character development, skillful story management. I’m giving it 3 stars, with a nod to the author’s considerable talent and recognizing that narration could play a big part in my dislike. I am fully aware that those who love this book really love this book. I wanted to love it too.