Phil Rickman,
The Man in the Moss
(Macmillan, 1994; Pan, 2000)

Bridelow is a (fictional) small town in central England, situated between the moors on one side and an enormous peat bog on the other side. Bridelow has been widely known for its beer (Bridelow Black) and more quietly known as the village in England that has stayed closest to its Celtic roots. Two religions co-exist there: the inhabitants openly worship in a Christian church, but there are other, quieter religious services, focused on the Goddess; the Mother in Bridelow is not Mary, mother of Christ. The older pagan religion is overseen by the Mothers Union, a group of matriarchs who carry on the old ways and hold to their lore.

But, things are about to change. First, the brewery is bought by a big corporate brewery and many people lose their jobs. Second, the Christian preacher falls ill and is replaced, at least temporarily. Old Rev. Hans Gruber was originally an outsider, but he had learned to peaceably co-exist with the Mothers Union and their beliefs. His replacement, Rev. Joel Beard, is a charismatic, let's-clean-house type who takes it as his mission to "purify" Bridelow and drive out the evil pagan practices.

Ma Wagstaff, leader of the Mothers Union, distrusts coincidence and suspects a connection between Beard and the brewery sale. Even Ma hasn't guessed at how big this really is, though!

The two central characters, amid a large supporting cast, are Moira Cairns and Mungo MacBeth. Moira is a Celtic singer descended from a line of women who are not at all ordinary. She played in a band with two Bridelow residents, Matt Castle and Willie Wagstaff. Moira is not from Bridelow, but ends up being a crucial player in the battle that has quietly, surreptitiously begun. Mungo is an American filmmaker of Scottish ancestry who has been sent by his family to discover his heritage. He does, and it is much bigger, darker and scarier than he expected. Will he and Moira survive? Will they end up together?

What starts all the wheels turning -- toward disaster, salvation or a bit of both -- is the discovery by a road construction crew of a body buried in the peat bog adjacent to Bridelow. An old body. Very old. The Man in the Moss turns out to have been an outsider who was ritually sacrificed about a millenium before to become the town's guardian against evil. When his peatmoss-preserved body is discovered, the government whisks it away to a museum for study. That's not good for Bridelow, which has lost its Guardian! Lo and behold, the body gets stolen and cannot be found by the authorities. But he will be found. And that's when things get really strange.

This book is for patient readers only. There is a large cast of characters, all of whom are well developed. The setting is also developed well, as is the theme of how pagan and Christian beliefs can mesh, or clash. All that detail makes for a long story with a pace that is far from quick. The writing is impeccable, though, and the development of setting and cast combines with a complex plot to yield a very rich tale. The further you read, the more the story unfolds, and gets more intense, bizarre and riveting. There are deaths, both predictable and not. Some big characters fade as the story progresses to be replaced by others emerging into prominence. This story is as much about the town, its history and its future as it is about the people.

Now that I've read this book, I'd like to visit (fictional) Bridelow and meet (some) of these (fictional) people. I know this town and these people. That's how well this tale is told. But I'd visit on a sunny day, and I'd go with a friend, and I would be very careful to offend no one!

This is a dark, complex horror story, rooted in Celtic beliefs and their meshing, or clashing, with Christianity. A long book, but well worth the effort!

review by
Chris McCallister

26 July 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new