‘Ritual’ by David Pinner

(publ. Finders Keepers)

The gap since original publication in 1967 and this year’s re-release by Finders Keepers may not be the publishing world’s longest, but it must be one of the least understandable. Many reading this article will already know that Ritual was the inspiration behind perhaps the greatest horror film ever made in the UK; The Wicker Man, and certainly the most debated, sought after and loved. It is even thought that the modest sum Pinner received for the rights to his novel made him the only person connected with the film who ever got paid, but that’s another story.

The novel is set not in Scotland, but in the equally remote Cornish countryside, where the very air seems to reek of sex, death and secrecy. The figure of the police detective, Inspector David Hanlin, detailed to investigate the death of a child, has a lot in common with his film counterpart, the puritanical Sgt. Howie. His arrival in the small rural community piques immediate adverse reaction, as he sets about finding suitable temporary accommodation with access to those who knew the child. The close proximity of the highly-sexed daughter of a local family is another character reflected in the famous film. Our detective finds himself in the unenviable position of the stranger with authority over the locals, generally mistrusted, attractive to the young unattached women, despised by the local men and watched wherever he goes. 

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Although ‘Ritual’s pacing has a pedestrian feel, its language is unconventional, flowery, and times, irritatingly twee, with its awkward adverbs, sudden halts and a tendency to mix pastoral whimsy with pulp-style erotica. Taking into account the otherworldly setting and subject matter, this is not entirely incongruous.

The womb-like atmosphereof the village is further enhanced by the constant references to children’s’ games, songs and pastimes. The local culture’s descent from the pagan past is no coincidence and it is obvious that Pinner researched (or already knew?) his subject well, before embarking on the story. The recurring images of the power and danger of games is one of the story’s strengths, recalling the disturbing ‘weird children’ cycle of films like The Bad Seed and The Innocents.

One of the cast of red herrings is an outrageously-realised feral child, who at times seems more a spirit than a living boy, created from the collective imagination of the inward-looking community. No-one reading this richly fortified potboiler would be fooled into thinking that the boy could have been the murderer; he is simply there to provoke sympathy or revulsion, depending on the readers’ prejudices.

Like the fatally marked Sgt. Howie, Inspector Hanlin is literally led a merry dance by the villagers, as one false trail after another is laid in his path. His ordeal in the elaborate May Day procession is every bit as fantastical as that of the film, with the children making up most of the animal-masked revellers. The traditional May Day characters make their appearances, the ambisexual ‘Tease’ being brought out with particular gusto and in a surprisingly frank way, for the period.

The image of a barrel of beer as an offering to the sea also appears in this book, yet still manages to surprise and amuse, and act as a counterpoint to the more terrible sacrifice to come?

When I first read Ritual, borrowed from a well-stocked Public Library a few years ago, it left me in two minds, and my re-reading here of the welcome re-launch has not altered my feelings.  The novel’s contrasting elements of folklore and mundane detection, against the clock, make for a somewhat disjointed read, as the former is as outlandish as the latter is stereotypical, but perhaps that’s the point. Cheekily referred to as ‘Finders Keepers Forgery Number One’, it deserves a read, and the name of the village pub is worth the cover price alone.


Scenester lives in London and Brighton, as time allows. Enjoys music, film, television, books, design and anything else which won’t leave well alone. Old enough to know better.

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Originally posted 2011-06-03 13:40:48. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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