First of all, it’s important to note that Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts is nowhere near the same length as her other works, particularly her best-known books Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel. It’s best described as a novella, one which can probably be read in one sitting (it took me two). Your enjoyment will probably hinge on knowing beforehand that this isn’t a dense holiday read, but a thinly-plotted though atmospheric story about a man’s brush with the supernatural, told predominantly in his own words.
Freddie Watson is still grieving for the loss of his older brother in the Great War, travelling through the south of France in 1928 in an attempt to forget the past. It is winter and the roads are treacherous, so it comes as little surprise when his car spins off the road and forces him to seek shelter in the mountainous regions outside Tarascon. He stumbles upon the small village of Nulle and finds refuge in a boarding house run by a woman who invites him to the village’s annual memorial service to honor the dead.
At the appointed time, Freddie arrives at the town hall to find it bustling with people, including a very beautiful young woman who introduces herself as Fabrissa. Over the course of the night the two share their sad stories with one another, interrupted only briefly by a strange disturbance at the door of the town hall. It is not until the following day that Freddie understands precisely what it was all about, and what he’s expected to do next with the information gleaned over the course of the night.
The Winter Ghosts is a haunting tale best read on a cold winter’s night in front of the fireplace. Mosse sets the mood carefully, taking the time to establish Freddie’s background and his state of mind, as well as her vivid rendering of the French countryside and the village of Nulle. Helped immensely by Brian Gallagher’s black-and-white illustrations (made all the more eerie by the fact that they never feature any human figures), the book’s key strength is the atmosphere that it sustains: it’s haunting and melancholy from start to finish.
The plot itself is hopelessly predictable — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The reader will no doubt figure out what’s happening to Freddie long before he does, but his psychological state (not to mention Mosse’s care in grounding the story in reality) means that there’s still a lingering sense of mystery about what really happened to him.
There are a lot of echoes here of Mosse’s previous work: not only in her use of a secret discovery in a cave, but in her great love of French history and topography, particularly the final days of the crusade against the Cathars. Enticing chapter headings such as “The Watcher in the Hills” and “The Path through the Woods” keep you reading, and an afterword explains some of the real-life occurrences that inspired the story.
But your enjoyment of the story will depend on understanding what you’re in for. If you’re expecting a long and detailed saga in the strain of Mosse’s previous books, you’ll be disappointed. This is a simple but memorable story that relies on its atmosphere rather than any in-depth character study or clever plotting.
As an added warning, be aware that The Winter Ghosts is heavily based (and in fact, almost identical) to Mosse’s earlier story The Cave, published in 2009 as part of the Quick Reads initiative. They are pretty much the exact same story, so if you’re perusing Mosse’s body of work, be aware that this and The Cave is an either/or choice.