One of the many Christian sects to flourish in Europe was that of the Cathars --- or Cathari, as they were known --- who existed primarily during the 12th and 13th centuries mainly in the Languedoc region of France. The Cathari did not believe in one all-encompassing God, but in two equal deities, which did not make them popular with the Catholic Church. They were all but wiped out during the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade, and labeled as heretics.
Kate Mosse deftly uses this ancient subtext as the key element of her new novel, THE WINTER GHOSTS. The protagonist of this tale is young Freddie Watson. A British youth in 1933, Freddie has been travelling through southern France in an effort to escape from his self-imposed torment and grief brought about by the death of his beloved brother, George, during World War I.
Upon entering an old bookshop in Toulouse with a letter he has found written in an unfamiliar language, his tale begins. The bookshop owner indicates that the letter is of medieval Occitan origin and tells of bones and an underground burial area in the French mountainside that may be haunted. Freddie goes on to regale a story to the bookstore owner about an incident he had in the mysterious mountains outside Tarascon and his own experience with the ancient spirits alleged to still haunt the area.
One day, while staying at a local inn, Freddie is invited by the landlady to join the town at a local event they are holding that evening. He is enamored with a young woman by the curious name of Fabrissa. Fabrissa can tell that Freddie is tormented and grieving, and he easily recounts George’s death during WWI and the impact that has had on his life. She then shares some of her own sorrows, and during their conversation tells Freddie, “The dead leave their shadows, an echo of the space within which once they lived. They haunt us, never fading or growing older as we do. The loss we grieve is not just their futures but our own.”
It turns out that Fabrissa’s words are quite prophetic, though Freddie does not initially understand their implication. When a row breaks out at the town event, people are sent scrambling from the square. Fabrissa leads Freddie to a secret passage that allows them access to underground passages that will lead them out of town and set them out somewhere in the mountains just beyond. Unfortunately for Freddie, the thrilling events that succeed this escape leave him unconscious. When he awakens to find himself back in his bed at the inn, the landlady indicates she did not see him at the event the night before --- nor had she ever heard of anyone in town named Fabrissa, or some of the other odd names he throws at her.
Upon further research in his efforts to find out what happened during this one frenzied evening, Freddie is faced with the fact that he may have been whisked away through an ancient doorway into the past, and Fabrissa and her friends may have been the infamous Winter Ghosts that haunt the forest. He further learns of stories concerning a group of Cathars who were banished and imprisoned in underground caves, which eventually became their gravesite as every member of the clan died one by one, their spirits still alleged to haunt the woodlands to this very day.
Kate Mosse, best known for her international bestsellers LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE, originally published THE WINTER GHOSTS in the UK in 2009. It is now seeing release in the US, and I trust it will be embraced by fans of her work as well as those who enjoy a good historical ghostly tale. Mosse deftly weaves medieval and 20th-century stories of grief, and uses Freddie to embody the feelings of loss and eventually the enlightenment of getting past the hopelessness and isolation he has within him.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 28, 2011