Phil Rickman began his career as a novelist with Candlenight (1991) and Crybbe (1993), novels that mixed Celtic and British mythology with supernatural elements and a strong regional flavor. His effective use of supernatural suspense led him to be typed as a horror writer, a label he has worked to change. Although his early work was sometimes compared to that of Stephen King and ghost-story writer M. R. James, Rickman told interviewer David Mathew that he did not identify himself as a horror writer nor did he feel that he really fit into any other category, genre, or subgenre. His first five novels, from Candlenight to The Chalice (1997), mixed folklore, history, and mysticism, providing subtle chills rather than the fantastic events and outright gore that had come to dominate the horror genre. Although these novels were moderately successful, most critics agree that with The Wine of Angels (1998), his first Merrily Watkins mystery, Rickman found his true voice.
The Merrily Watkins books can be classified as crime novels because the investigation of a crime, usually murder, features prominently in most of the novels, but they also allow Rickman to explore mythology, religion, gender and sexuality, rural life, and the conflicts between natives and outsiders and between tradition and change in modern-day Britain. In The Wine of Angels, the persecution for witchcraft of a seventeenth century vicar who may or may not have been gay leads to conflicts and resentments within present-day Ledwardine. A Crown of Lights (2001) finds Merrily caught in the middle of a conflict between neopagans and Christians, while The Smile of a Ghost (2005) uses medieval Ludlow Castle, a real-life castle on the Welsh border, as the setting for mysterious suicides and a possible haunting. In The Prayer of the Night Shepherd (2004), Merrily’s daughter Jane takes a job at Stanner Hall, a hotel on the Welsh border in a village that may have been the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902-1902). Despite the presence of ghosts and other mysterious forces, Rickman’s novels achieve a strong sense of realism through their lifelike and vivid depictions of landscape and people along the rural border of England and Wales.