Karen Maitland introduces her new novel, A Gathering of Ghosts
Posted on: 20/06/2018 Medieval, Middle Ages
‘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 …’
From A Gathering of Ghosts
Some images make such an impression on a child that they burrow deep into his or her imagination. And, if that child grows up to be an author, the image often re-emerges decades later, having metamorphosed into a novel. This is exactly what happened with my new medieval thriller, A Gathering of Ghosts. It’s a dark, gothic novel set in 1316, when Europe was in the grip of a terrible famine caused by months of wet weather, just like we experienced this last winter. Thousands of starving people were on the move searching for work and food, but the ruthless saw an opportunity to prey on the desperate for their own gain.
The story is set among the granite tors and sucking mires of Dartmoor. My fascination with this wild landscape began on a childhood holiday. My father had insisted on taking us camping on the moors to teach us survival skills, using a simple sheet of canvas for shelter. One night we pitched camp on the slope of a tor when it was already dark. Always a restless sleeper, I rolled out from beneath the canvas and slid down the slope in my sleeping bag. As a chill dawn broke, I discovered I was lying beside a long, narrow mound of lichen-covered stones, with a cracked wooden cross at its head. It was a grave. But who had been buried out on those desolate moors, miles from any village, and why? The ghost of the corpse I slept beside that night has haunted me ever since and my new novel is their story.
Dartmoor is shrouded in the mists of many dark legends which have inspired some of the elements in my book. Dewerstone, for example, is where a ghostly huntsman is said to entice his victims up on to the highest peak, from which they hurtle down on to the sharp rocks below to be savaged by his black wisht hounds. One character in A Gathering of Ghosts, Kendra, is a malicious old blood charmer, but even she is not quite so evil as the legendary Dartmoor witch, Vixiana, who once lived on Vixen Tor. It is said she would conjure up a mist and call out to travellers from the tor, pretending to guide them to safety, while actually luring them to their deaths in the bog beneath, chuckling with delight as she listened to their dying screams.
For centuries, copper, lead, silver and arsenic have all been mined on Dartmoor and throughout the Middle Ages, men, women and children tore the moor apart in their search for tin. Two of the characters in my novel are desperately trying to stay alive by tin streaming. But since ancient times, men have lowered themselves into Chaw Gully below Challacombe Ridge to search for something even more valuable than tin – gold. But if you are tempted, be warned: according to legend, as a thief descends, a raven croaks a warning and a spectral hand appears and cuts the rope. The thief plunges to their death in the gully where the ravens pick at their bones.
But if you visit Dartmoor this summer, one story you might dare to test out for yourself is the legend of Sheepstor. Hammering, whistling and human voices are still heard coming from that cave. Some intrepid souls have ventured in only to find it empty. But who knows what others may have discovered inside, for they were never seen again…
A GATHERING OF GHOSTS publishes in September 2018