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Carry on Screaming – The Chalice by Phil Rickman (1997) #BookReview

Welcome, ladies, gentlemen and fellow horror lovers, to this month’s Carry on Screaming post. Each month I’ll be reviewing a vintage British horror novels and reflecting on what was happening in both the horror genre and the news in the UK at the time. You can read previous posts in the series by clicking on the ‘Carry on Screaming‘ category.

The Chalice by Phil Rickman book cover

Glastonbury, legendary resting place of the Holy Grail, is a mysterious and haunting town. But when plump, dizzy Diane Ffitch returns home, it’s with a sense of deep unease – and not only about her aristocratic family’s reaction to her broken engagement and her New Age companions. Plans for a new motorway have intensified the old bitterness between the local people and the ‘pilgrims’, so already the sacred air is soured. And, as the town becomes increasingly split by violence and death, Diane, local bookseller Juanita Carey and the writer Joe Powys must now face up to the worst of all possibilities: the existence of an anti-Grail – the dark chalice.

Title: The Chalice | Author: Phil Rickman | Publisher: Macmillan | Pub. Year: 1997 | Pages: 645 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: No

Phil Rickman is an author with a style and set of themes which seem to be consistent across his numerous books. They’re set in Britain, feature new age mysticism and the supernatural and tend to be populated with interesting and likeable characters. He is best know for his ‘Merrily Watkins’ series, about a clergywoman investigating weird happenings, which was adapted into a UK TV series. Rickman claims he doesn’t consider himself a horror writer, and it’s fair to say that his books are more about magic and humanity than terror or gore. The publishing world doesn’t allow for such subtleties though, and so you’ll find his books filed alongside James Herbert’s rather than in the fantasy or general fiction sections.

‘The Chalice’ is very similar to the other books of his that I’ve read. It’s set around Glastonbury, specifically the Glastonbury Tor and a mystery surround the resting place of the Holy Grail. Linked into this are an enjoyably diverse bunch of characters and sub-plots about the building of a motorway and the family history of the local aristocracy. The sense of place is really important to all of Rickman’s books. You get the impression that he deeply loves the British countryside, and his descriptions of it made me want to get my boots on and go hiking.

Even better is the attention he plays to painting his characters, and it’s the people rather than the story that make the book successful. There are a lot of them, but Rickman manages to make them all distinctive and believable. Many of them are archetypes, but that doesn’t make them less fun to read. There’s the withdrawn wealthy landowner, his wayward daughter, an author specialising in folklore and the paranormal, a hippy town councillor and many, many more.

The plot is interesting, but moves at a snail’s pace. It features a few themes that are common with other books I’ve reviewed for Carry On Screaming. There’s the friction between rich and poor that is frequent topic in British popular fiction, especially that with a rural setting, and which is often represented in the work of Herbert, Hutson and Smith. The notion of occultism playing a part in the Second World War, which featured in both ‘The Spear’ and ‘The Devil’s of D-Day’ always makes an appearance. The final quarter of the book is really gripping, but I found the middle dragged. The problem is that, at over 600 pages, the book is too long. At times it feels more like a soap opera about the goings on in a small West Country town, than it does a supernatural mystery. The strength of the lives Rickman conjures onto the page means that isn’t a complete disaster, but I do think that the loss of 100 or so pages would have improved matters.

Content Warning:



I’m adopting a slightly different rating system for my Carry on Screaming review, because, let’s face it, vintage horror novels are about more than just the quality of the actual book.

Book: 3 out of 5

Cover: 2 out of 5 – Let’s be honest, it’s pretty dull

Nastiness: 2 out of 5 – in line with Rickman’s stand that he isn’t a horror writer, this isn’t a very horrible book

Sauciness: 1 out of 5 – sauceless

Cover promise vs delivery: 2 out of 5 – really it’s a book about people, and the cover features none

Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 10/25

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What else happened in 1997?

1997 was marked by two major events in UK news. The landslide general election victory for Tony Blair’s New Labour and the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. The Labour victory ended a long period of Tory rule and also saw a record number of female MPs elected, as well as the UK’s first Muslim MP.

Diana’s death resulted in a few days of pretty much blanket TV coverage, which the great British people fairly quickly tired of. Following on from the two royal divorces the year before, her death shook the monarchy and has had lasting impacts on the public’s opinion of them.

In lighter news, the UK one the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in ages. And probably the last. I won’t tell you what the song was, because if I do you’ll end up with an ear worm like I now have.

Like 1996, 1997 saw some biggish budget horror movies make it into cinemas. ‘Event Horizon’, ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, ‘Scream 2’, ‘Anaconda’, ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ and ‘Mimic’ all came out, with varying degrees of success.  

It may not have been a great year for horror film, but it was an even worse one for horror fiction. I’ve struggled to find any books of real note that came out that year. If you know of one, please leave a comment!

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Next up, the return of an author whose first book I featured back in 1985 – Stephen Laws’ ‘Chasm’

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