The Winter Ghosts
The timing couldn’t have been better for ‘an old- fashioned ghost story’. I had heard this described perfectly Kate Mosse’s short 2009 novel, The Winter Ghosts. It was a torrentially wet Saturday night, with Sunday morning promised to be the same; and I had both free. On top of that, Ms. Mosse has described herself as a fan of the classic ghost stories of authors such as Henry James, Algernon Blackwood and Sheridan Le Fanu. Well… maybe it was a mistake to set the hapless reader’s hopes that high; but how could I have expected this book to be quite as awful as it was?
Twenty-seven- year- old Freddie Watson is still in mourning for his brother, George, who was killed no less than twelve years previously, during World War I. He mopes around, feeling sorry for himself and being pissed off at his ‘distant’ parents – who it seems to me might have had a bit of grieving of their own to do. I wasn’t helped in feeling sympathy for the guy when he described himself as having gone through all the stages of grief, including ‘denial’. Did they have the Oprah Show back in 1928?
In any case, off goes Freddy to the French Pyrenees, where he finds himself in the small town of Nulle, which appears to be soaked in some sort of spiritual grief. And as if that’s not bad enough, from there he undergoes some sort of time slip which takes him back roughly seven hundred years, to around the period that the Catholic Church was exterminating the supposedly heretical Cathar religion.
Now, slipping through cracks in Time has often – often – been done really well and in a manner that grips the reader; and let’s face it, there should be no way on earth that you can make the Church’s appalling eradication of a rival faith in any way boring. Yet in some manner that is almost genius in itself, Kate Mosse manages to do this superbly.
On top of that, whilst he’s in whatever Limbo La-La Land he’s in, Freddy meets a strange, waif-like beauty called Fabrissa (about all that she’s missing are a pair of elfin ears and a sign reading ‘I want to be played by Cate Blanchett’) with whom he falls immediately in love.
I don’t know which got on my nerves and creeped me out more: his eternal mooning over his dead brother or his new eternal mooning over his ‘time-out-of-joint’ love at first sight. As for the bits that are supposed to creep you out… well, they just don’t, that’s all. Maybe it’s the name, Freddie: there’s just no way that a spectral wail of ‘Freeeeedie ‘is going to do it for me. Not unless I’m hearing it on Elm Street.
As it happens, I had tried Ms. Mosse’s Labyrinth about ten years ago, when I had been fortunate enough to have done a couple of writing jobs in and around Carcassonne and points south. As a result, I was knocked out with that whole region of France. There’s no doubt that the lady can really write about –and obviously loves – that same area; however, apart from the landscape I didn’t care for that book either.
The Winter Ghosts is a short story that should have stayed that way. Mind you, the book wasn’t a complete wash-out for me. Waterstone’s had commissioned a new, very short tale from Mosse for the hardback edition. Called ‘La Tombe de Pyrène’ it is genuinely haunting, delicate and moving – everything that its parent piece should have been, but sadly was not.