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A Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland

Article by Swirl and Thread ©.
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‘You’ll need more than a sword to protect you up there. Other side of that priory stands the most accursed hill on the whole moor. You can hear the dead whispering among those rocks. Hungry ghosts, they are. There’s many has heard them talking, and some even followed the voices into the caves up there. Followed them in, Brothers, but never came out….’

In A Gathering of Ghosts‘Pagans tackle the Knights of St John with terrible consequences’.

This is a dark and gothic novel folks, set in 1316, a time when Europe was in the midst of a terrifying famine.

I knew in picking up A Gathering of Ghosts, from the cover alone, that here was a book that was going to unnerve me…and it did!

As I turned the pages of A Gathering of Ghosts and read the very powerful descriptions, my stomach churned on more than one occasion. Karen Maitland is rightly described as the Queen of the Dark Ages. It’s as though she has witnessed for herself the horrendous conditions of the time and experienced first-hand the fears and superstitions of the local people…in 1316!

A Gathering of Ghosts is set against the backdrop of the moors, with the desolation vividly evident among the tors and mires of Dartmoor, a place that always conjures up images of old myths and dark haunting stories. The Priory of St Mary is an isolated convent, home to a very small group of Sisters who belong to the Knights of St John, a medieval Catholic Military Order. The Priory is built over a holy well that was there long before the Knights arrived. Originally in the care of locals, who had strong pagan beliefs, the Sisters have never been fully welcomed by the inhabitants of Dartmoor. Folk come from far and wide to avail of the healing powers that they believe the well bestows, with many still believing that the well and all the lands of Dartmoor is theirs. The people of Dartmoor were there long before Christianity darkened their doorstep and many would be very pleased to see the Sisters permanently removed from the Priory.

As the Great Famine continues it’s hold over Europe, the population of Dartmoor suffers terribly. With crops depleted and starvation rife, many turn to the Sisters for help. What limited supplies they have are divided out among the throngs who come to their gate. But, even with the food shortages and the harshness of life on the moors, there are still those who hold on strongly to their pagan beliefs and are convinced that the Sisters are a problem.

When a young boy mysteriously makes an appearance within the grounds of the Priory, an immediate sense of doom is evident. He is blind. He is mute. He is alone. The Sisters take on the responsibility of caring for him but simultaneously there is some very strange stirrings among other folks. With their superstitious nature, they fear that this boy carries evil in his soul. The arrival of a senior Knight, sent on a mission to assist the Sisters and to search their accounts for irregularities causes further upset among the residents of the convent.

Karen Maitland also takes us out into the moors, where many broke their backs daily tinning, in the hope of earning a crust to stay alive. The ramshackle and filthy squalor of their dwellings was just criminal. Treated worse than any animal, I could almost smell the rank and disgusting odors emanating from unwashed bodies trying to survive alongside free-flowing sewage. In conditions that were inhumane, Karen Maitland just brings it all alive. It really felt like I was walking back in time.

Events start to amalgamate causing mayhem and suspicion to be prevalent. The Sisters do their best to control the situation and to keep some semblance of calm but the moors will not be silenced.

Haunting, mesmeric and dark, A Gathering of Ghosts is an almost claustrophobic read. Filled with imagery of hungry hounds roaming the moors at night baying for blood, of a frightened cloister battling to survive, of a people reduced to eating the grass on the side of the roads and of the very, very dark rituals of those who are very angered by the arrival of Christianity on the moors. The smells invoked, the despair of a society left to rot and the constant and persistent floods of rain all contribute to making A Gathering of Ghosts a very fascinating read.

Compelling. Atmospheric. Chilling. Dark. Frightening. Intriguing. Eerie…

I could go on.

(c) Swirl and Thread

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