Review: Ramskull, William Meikle, 2017.
William Meikle writes heroic horror. That’s not to say good people always win in his stories or even survive to their end. When facing monsters and demons and other “bogles” beyond our ken, his heroes and heroines have their own magic. It’s often not grimoires or special weapons or superscience or sorcery that defeat the horror. It’s the magic of duty, love, and loyalty.
Ramskull is such a story.
The opening is that of a classic police thriller. Here it’s veteran David Wilkes and rookie John Campbell. Wilkes spent his early cop days on the mean streets of Glasgow, but now he’s on the force in Oban, Scotland where the two are sent to investigate a mutilated sheep on the nearby island of Leita.
Actually, that’s not the real beginning of the story. It’s set in 1494 and also on Leita where Alexander Seton – member of a clan that shows up in many Meikle stories – is sent by the king to make sure work resumes on constructing the Abbey of St. Brennan there. What he finds beneath the Abbey will, of course, tie in with what Wilkes and Campbell find more than 500 years later.
And what Wilkes and Campbell will find is an island ominously quiet, a pool of disappearing blood, and that some of the inhabitants and a group of visiting tourists have been possessed by something that’s turned them into cannibals. But, despite the danger they pose, Wilkes is a decent man who, unlike many a zombie story (which this isn’t), isn’t going to willynilly kill his old friends and acquaintances. Not that he has a lot in the way of weapons. And the cavalry isn’t going to be coming anytime soon given that communication with Oban has been cut off.
The novel pulled me through the story relentlessly even when I did notice bits of other Meikle stories turning up, and the third act took me completely by surprise. Besides a bit of Lovecraft, Meikle works in his Just One mythology in explaining just what force has been awakened on Leita.
Additional Thoughts with Spoilers
Besides one of the Seton clan showing up, there are other Meikle motifs we’ve seen elsewhere. The rainbow colored eggs, seemingly a sort of dimensional doorway, are here along with the usual sinister chants that show up in many other Meikle stories. A 1948 historical interlude is basically a version of Meikle’s “The Just One” with very minor changes in setting.
So what do I mean about heroics?
Well, while Ramskull and his followers have their own chants to help open a gateway into another dimension, Wilkes has his own mantra to overcome his fear and Ramskull’s attempts at possession: variations of “You’re a bloody cop. Do your duty.” The mason who helps Seton suppress Ramskull at the beginning gives his life to do it and make sure the Abbey is built. When Frank Grainger becomes fully possessed by Ramskull and brings death and chaos to Oban in the final third of the novel, it is his wife Jan who overcomes the grip on his mind by reminding him of “the realities of real life, to duty, and to love”.
Meikle also briefly hints at how all this is going to be explained to the public and the trauma and guilt of those who killed and cannibalized under the influence of Ramskull.