A Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland - book review
A clash between old pagan beliefs and Christianity has devastating consequences at an isolated priory in a wet and windswept corner of 14th century Dartmoor.
Karen Maitland, the queen of medieval Gothic, works her own unique brand of black magic in A Gathering of Ghosts, a thrilling and atmospheric tale of death, darkness and spine-chilling supernatural mystery set during Europe’s Great Famine of 1315 to 1317 when extreme weather blighted crops, killed livestock and left widespread starvation.
Maitland’s books pack an incredibly powerful punch. Authentic historical backgrounds frame chilling and disturbing tales full of blood-soaked action, dangerous intrigue, supernatural mysteries and a palpable sense of menace.
Author of a string of bestsellers including Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Raven’s Head and The Plague Charmer, Maitland’s macabre tales – steeped in history, superstition, mystery and myth – have become cult reading and this hair-raising new foray into the medieval world is so richly portrayed and so viscerally real that we can feel the menace seeping through the pages.
As ominous events take place and the fight for survival becomes all-consuming, the truce between the priory’s Sisters and followers of the ancient faith starts to break down, and old grievances threaten to shatter an already fragile peace.
For the past thirty years, the Priory of St Mary on Dartmoor has been home to the Hospitaller Sisters of the Knights of St John run by Prioress Johanne who rules ‘like an archangel with a flaming sword.’ Pilgrims journey from afar in search of healing at St Brigid’s well, a holy spring that lies in a cavern beneath its chapel.
But the locals believe Dartmoor was theirs long before Christianity came to the land. In the nearby village, Old Kendra and her tribe of daughters were once keepers of the spring, calling it Bryde’s Well, and they cursed the whole priory on the day it was blessed for a Christian saint.
Many villagers still make their prayers and offerings to the ancient goddess who watched over the spring centuries before, and not all who visit the priory seek miracles. When three strangers reach the moor, fear begins to stir as the rocks around the well’s sacred waters glow with a ruby-red light as if they are bleeding.
Sorrel, a young woman with a withered arm is regarded as an outcast but she has been called to the village on the moor by the voice in her head. A blind and mute boy found cowering in the chapel is denounced by the priory’s old priest, Father Guthlac, as ‘a foul creature of darkness’ who will curse them all, and Brother Nicholas, a Knight of St John, claims he has been sent to take charge of the priory.
What witchcraft have they all brought with them? The Sisters will need to fight for everything they hold dear as the ghosts of the Old World gather in their midst…
Each of Maitland’s books offers a new and unique adventure, a journey into the past where the paranormal drives events in a society already filled with fear and superstition.
Her trademark blend of history, fiction and supernatural is at its electrifying best in A Gathering of Ghosts, an intensely claustrophobic thriller which explores corruption, greed and the darker side of humanity as hunger and suspicion stalk a sodden, soulless landscape full of desperate, destitute people.
The authentic and richly detailed historical backdrop is the perfect framework for a chilling concoction of devilish twists, dangerous intrigue, sorcery, and superstition.
Add to this an exciting assortment of original and vibrant characters, a spine-tingling plotline and a clever, compelling multi-narrative technique, and the stage is set for a truly gripping, suspense-packed mystery, bristling with evil and offering up a vision of the Middle Ages that is both unsettling and unforgettable.
(Headline Review, trade paperback, £14.99)