The Winter Ghosts, By Kate Moss

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The Independent Culture

Kate Mosse is no stranger to the pleasures of the supernatural. Her previous novel, Sepulchre, dealt in Tarot cards and devil worship, while Labyrinth, her international bestseller, rivalled Dan Brown in the Grail-gripper stakes. This short novel, a ghost story of the old school, is an altogether more compressed and classic affair.

The best ghost stories concern the predicaments of the living rather than the dead. Freddie Watson, this book's narrator, emerges as a textbook haunted hero. A quiet, studious sort, he has never got over the death of his older brother, George, in the Great War. In an attempt to put aside his grief, he decides to take a holiday in south-western France. It's here, while motoring through the snowy foothills of the Pyrenees, that his car spins off the road and he's forced to take refuge in the nearest village.

Nulle, like so many of Mosse's well-drawn French towns, proves more down-at-heel than charming - its cobbled streets shabby, the Place de L'Eglise empty. When at his landlady's suggestion, Freddie accepts an invitation to attend the village's winter fête, things get yet more disquieting. Even Freddie at his most obtuse can't fail to notice that his drinking companions are sporting period dress, humming plainsong and spouting occitan.

Freddie's psychic turmoil - as we work out quicker than he does - seems to have channelled long-buried memories of Cathar persecution in the region. The walls between past and present are thin, and it's clear that he has travelled further than he intended. Among the late-night revellers is a beautiful young woman, Fabrissa, to whom he feels drawn to confide his sorry history of loss and grief. The girl's own story, when it eventually unfolds, is a tale of nocturnal massacres and charnel house horrors.

The Winter Ghosts sees Mosse writing at her most taut and succinct. The early chapters, with their evocative landscape of forlorn mountain passes and soughing pine trees, suggest unspecified depths and hidden threat. It's only later, as the novel becomes more interested in the spirit made flesh, rather than its more menacing disembodied presence, that the link between the fallen of the Somme and long-ago heretics starts to feel a little far-fetched.