Macabre Ink/Crossroad Press
William Meikle is a Scottish writer currently living in Newfoundland, Canada, who has written a large number of novels, novellas and short stories usually centered around the Mystery, Horror and Cthulhu Mythos genres. He has been called ‘Scotland’s Greatest Horror Writer’ by Ginger Nuts of Horror, a judgement that I not only agree with, but personally believe to be considerably understating both Mr Meikle’s range and talent as a writer. He is one of my favourite authors, and I have finally found the time in my life to be able to do something I have thought about doing for a number of years – I will be dedicating the whole of March 2018 to reviews of Mr Meikle’s wide and varied catalogue of titles, a large number of which I currently have on my bookshelves, or the eLibrary of my Kindle. I will therefore begin what I’ve dubbed #MeikleMonth with a review of one of Mr Meikle’s latest releases, the Mythos/Horror novella Ramskull, published by Macabre Ink, which is an imprint of Crossroad Press.
Note: I kindly received a copy of the novella from Mr Meikle in exchange for loading his website’s RSS feed onto this blog; this was excellent timing, as I had planned to do this anyway when I had the time and technical mastery of WordPress’ advanced functions
Ramskull is actually a perfect introduction to the works of Mr Meikle, as not only is it some of his best writing so far, it also brings together many of the different themes, locations and character archetypes that he uses in his titles. Many of the author’s tales are set in and around Scotland and the Scottish Isles, and Ramskull is no exception, taking place on and around Leita, a tiny island a few miles offshore of Oban, a town nestled on the very edge of the Western coast of Scotland. The permanent residents of Leita can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands, their numbers only bolstered by occasional parties of tourists who visit the island for bird-watching and to see the ruins of the infamous Arbroath Abbey; and humans are by far outnumbered by the sheep being farmed on the island. It’s a peaceful, isolated existence, one suddenly interrupted by the gruesome dismemberment of several sheep. Two officers from the Oban police force, Sergeant Dave Wiles and Constable John Campbell, decide to take a break from mind-numbing piles of paperwork to visit the island. They expect to find nothing more than a couple of sheep attacked by a natural predator – an eagle perhaps – and then spend a few hours in the local bar before heading back to the mainland. What they find instead, however, is a seemingly-deserted island; the door to the general store has been broken down, but apart from that nothing seems out of the ordinary – kettles are still warm from being boiled recently, beds are made, everything neat and tidy. There’s just not a soul in sight. Before long however, the two police officers will be up to their elbows in blood, guts, mystical forces beyond their comprehension, and the eponymous Ramskull.
In my opinion, one of the greatest skills Mr Meikle possesses as an author is his ability to effortlessly create the atmosphere of wherever his story is set, only needing to use a few sentences where other writers often have to use paragraphs, or even entire pages. He seems to particular excel at this when his stories are set in his native Scotland, his obvious passion coming to the fore, and Ramskull greatly benefits from it. Although fictional, the island of Leita is well-realised, Meikle deftly creating an island that is both starkly beautiful but also quietly menacing, using fantastic prose such as “…a huge gray wedge, thick at the north end, a vertical cliff that plunged a hundred yards and more into seas…” This menacing atmosphere is present from the very beginning of the novella, particularly in the chapters that are set in the past, and the island itself rapidly becomes a character in of itself, at times almost alive with malevolence and low cunning. The other, human (and inhuman) characters are just as well realised, particularly Sergeant Wiles and the titular Ramskull. The former is a character archetype that the author often uses in his titles – that of the professional thrown into a situation that goes well beyond their previous experience, and forces them to question the very reality that they exist in; and the latter is a wonderfully grim and visceral character that dominates every scene, even when it does not appear, and is one of the best parts of the entire novella.
The atmosphere, characterisation and writing are of Mr Meikle’s usual high standards, and the same can easily be said of the plot, which is constantly moving forward slickly and efficiently, with never a wasted sentence or scene; the chapters set in the 13th and 14th Century are particularly enjoyable, with Alexander Seton (one of the author’s recurring characters) struggling to fight and contain an earlier manifestation of the Ramskull, and the terrifying effects it has on the island of Leita and the men working to build Arbroath Abbey. There were times when I was genuinely chilled by Ramskull and had to put my Kindle down; and others when I went back several times to re-read the same passage as it was so well written. Many of the latter were those passages where Mr Meikle makes use of another concept common within many of his works, and which is commonly referred to as ‘The Call of the Dance’. When a protagonist comes into close proximity with a Lovecraftian creature or artefact, they are often overwhelmed by ‘The Dance’, where their senses are overwhelmed and replaced by a sensation of floating in utter darkness, or sometimes with galaxies and stars whirling around them, with an urgent need to let themselves be subsumed by the urge to dance forever in the stars. It’s a fantastic device, and not only because it instantly creates a kind of shared universe between many of Mr Meikle’s works, but also because it is so radically different to how the realities of the cold, uncaring and horrifying universe are usually portrayed in Mythos fiction. Rather than the stereotypical depiction of hellish, demonic imagery that flays the mind of some unfortunate soul, here Mr Meikle is able to depict the simultaneously alien yet attractive nature of the ‘true’ Lovecraftian universe without falling into cliché, and demonstrate why so many cultists and innocents might so easily be lured into its clutches.
Ramskull is perhaps one of the finest pieces of fiction that Mr Meikle has ever written, with a strong cast of well-realised and fleshed out characters, a deeply horrifying yet intriguing antagonist, some beautifully-described scenery and atmosphere in the form of the island of Leita, and a plot that left me wanting a sequel as soon as possible. It is a novella that does the author credit, and which should be picked up anyone interested in Mythos fiction, Horror fiction, or just fine writing in general.