Ritual is something of an odd novel, but one with a very colourful and slightly bemusing history. Originally receiving only a very short print run, the book later became highly sort after when a connection was revealed between it and the 1973 film The Wicker Man, with copies known to have sold for up to £600. Now, being a student, I’m saddened to say that I do not own an original copy and indeed were it not for a marvellous little company called ‘Finders Keepers’ (cult movie soundtrack lovers you should defiantly check them out) then it’s doubtful if I would of been able to read this little oddity at all. Admittedly my interest in the novel only came about because I happen to be something of a Wicker Man fan, indeed I would probably go so far to say it’s the most well made and artistic (even if it’s not my personal favourite) British Horror Movie ever. Despite that though I was always aware that Ritual was supposedly a very different beast from its predecessor, and although having bought the film rights to the book, all those involved in the making of the Wicker Man constantly state that its influence was very limited. Which if true, I admit I am somewhat grateful for.
Now it’s not that Ritual is a bad book, but I must admit however enjoyable it is, it’s not really a great one and especially when compared to the cinematic masterpiece that followed it, it doesn’t really have a lot going for it. The plot is fairly similar, a policeman goes to a remote part of the British Isles to investigate possible child sacrifice and discovers a village whose has reverted from Christianity to worship the old gods. At least I think that’s what they worship in the book anyway, and so we come to the first problem with the novel. Like the film it has a slightly artistic style to it, indeed I’d be tempted to refer to it more as a piece of ‘literature’ than straight up fiction as it clearly has a lot to say about society and beliefs. However this means that things are never exactly clear and certain amounts of required simplicity are sacrificed (excuse the pun) in what I assume was to make the book more unusual and shocking. However the effect of this results in making it overtly and needlessly complicated. For example to return to my comment about what the villagers worship, I was always under the impression that paganism (the worship of the old gods) and Satanism along with witchcraft were unrelated. Now I am no expert on these matters, my research limited purely to Google and one or two rather tatty textbooks found in my local library, but in Ritual I’m never entirely sure what the villagers are. Sometimes they seem to discuss pagan beliefs and other times satanic ones, maybe I’m looking far too into it but it’s nice to know exactly what your protagonist is fighting against. Without that the various ‘practices’ come across more as a mixed bag, an attempt simply to make the villagers more lurid and shocking. I may have got entirely the wrong end of the stick here, but a little more clarity is all that would have been needed.
I mentioned above that the lack of clarity over just what exactly the villagers worship could be an attempt to get more shocking imagery into the novel and indeed it is than that makes me think that when Mr Pinner wrote, Ritual, he wrote it more as a ‘literary’ novel than as a piece of enjoyable fiction. Indeed the book is full of haunting moments and images that will no doubt linger in your mind, the police inspector David Hanlin (a very different man to Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie) is particularly striking, always wearing sunglasses, and there is some beautiful passages describing the sunlight’s effect on the glasses and how this makes him appear to the villagers. The moment when the villagers force David to relieve many childhood horrors and doubt himself is also highly effective. The problem is however that too much effort goes in to making particular moments stand out and not enough in making the book work as a whole. Some scenes just feel odd and the lines, whilst having a striking effect, are difficult to imagine anyone saying. Admittedly this helps the odd dreamlike quality of the book but unless that’s all you want to get out of it, it appears as more of a distraction. Oh and if you’re going into this expecting a good murder mystery I would also stay away, the motive simply wasn’t strong enough, unlike in the film there seems to be little to no reason as to why the villagers practice ‘Witchcraft’ or Satanism or whatever it is. They appear to just do it because that’s what a retired actor convinced them to do.
I do feel that perhaps I have been slightly too harsh on ritual. I’m not an author, although I confess I do enjoy writing the odd story, and I’m certainly not a literary critic (I dropped out of the English literature side of my course I hated it that much) all I write is simply my opinion. Some can accuse me of going in expecting a direct parallel to the Wicker Man, I did not. I researched Ritual thoroughly before reading and knew that the relationship between the two was tenuous at best. However one final note, in reflection whilst I feel that Ritual simply does not work as a piece of fiction, the odd dreamlike quality and the impressive scenes and moments can clearly be seen to have given some fuel to the imagination of Anthony Schaffer, however, Schaffers creation is ultimately the more fulfilling and indeed I doubt whether Ritual , as poetic and beautiful as some of its images are, would have been as sort after were it not for its connection to the towering masterpiece that is The Wicker Man.