BOOK REVIEW / An angel on a hillside: 'The Earth Made of Glass' - Robert Edric: Picador, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S the rattle of very old bones at the heart of this tale, the rattle of skeletons disinterred; the rattle too of a rickety plot straining to bear its weight of portent. Set in 1691 on the north English moors, it carries its bleakness into the borders of Hammer Horror terrain. That figure silhouetted on the cart, as it breasts the skyline approaching the hamlet during dusk, seems like none other than Christopher Lee, perfectly cast as the Inquisitor.

Samuel Mercer, the village magistrate, tormented by the secrets and tribulations of his past, is Peter Cushing to a tee. The Earth Made of Glass explores their relationship, professional and private, touching eventually the anguish of Mercer's self-inflicted guilt. They meet in rooms, in huddled spaces, the perfect setting for introspection - sepia lit, full of conversations laced with nuance, looks and hints.

When Robert Edric leads his Inquisitor outdoors, the story grows wings (almost literally; there's an angel being carved on the blackened hillside) and flies into the realms of superstition and Gothic gloom. The Inquisitor, representing the Church Commissioners, is ostensibly here to value a plot of land on which a woman, 30 years earlier, had been burnt to death for witchcraft.

The evil energy engendered by this deed remains potently present; it is a force which infiltrates the charred landscape. Jonas Webster, the local parson, is the incubus of this force, cruel and righteous, in thrall to his vision of the angel; already 'the hillside was his altar'. His animosity towards the Inquisitor merely sharpens our curiosity and spurs the plot's momentum - as does a dig by the Inquisitor for clues among the debris of the house where the women had died.

The sombre tone is at times subverted (a welcome distraction) by a pair of Shakespearean dolts, Peg and Jaw, Webster's workhands, whose turnip-head humour finds its equally spoofish opposite in a gang of hooded women who roam the moors brandishing scythes. They read like refugees from Edric's book of freaks: In the Days of the American Museum, and as though aware of it Edric counters by writing a conscious - 'take me seriously' - literary prose:

'Vapours rose . . . and stirred the stubble smoke which still hung above blackened fields . . . Here and there a man or woman passed (the Inqusitor) in the village without speaking, their faces lowered. A word from his lips and they might turn instantly to the ash of their guilt or the salt of their remorse.'

Heady stuff, but also apt. The Inquisitor's dig has exhumed a body. Guilt and remorse have attained new heights. But just as you brace yourself for a dose of Grand Guignol, Edric astonishes us with a final, beguiling chapter that brings us back to sombre interiors, confrontation and conspiracy in a moment of revelation. It is beautifully done, snatched from the jaws of sentimentality. A reminder that Robert Edric at his best aspires to magic.