The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, by Kate Mosse

Mistletoe Bride cvr

In these fourteen short stories Kate Mosse shows her ability to deftly conjure an uncanny atmosphere which gives a lift to the frequently pedestrian ghost elements.  She is often inspired by places she has lived in or visited, and several are set in France, where she clearly feels at home.  The use of myth in some intertwines with others that present a more everyday world, the common elements uniting them being a focus on sadness, loneliness and loss.  Mosse acknowledges the influence of that treasure-trove, the Reader’s Digest Folklore, Legends and Myths of Britain (1973) as a source of inspiration.

The overall quality of the plots is variable, with occasionally a lack of attention to detail suggesting something dashed off.  In general the hits outnumber the misfires.  Some had previously been published in magazines but have been re-edited, and each is accompanied by a note discussing its origin and themes.  These comments stress how for Mosse story is shaped by the landscape.  She has the knack of making the ordinary seem uncanny, and exhibits a preference for marginal locations, both geographically and socially.

The titular story is actually one of the weakest, recounting the tale of a new bride playing hide-and-seek who climbs into a chest and expires there.  It is one that is oft-told (not least Henry James’s masterful ‘‘A Certain Suit of Old Clothes’), which makes Mosse’s version feel redundant.  However, she returns to the idea of the bride shut in and facing death in the final story, using a time-slip structure to tell a pleasing version that ends well, the young bride recovered and reunited with her husband to live a long life together.

Of the best entrants, ‘The Ship of the Dead’ takes us to the Brittany coast in 1930 (yet it feels timeless) and describes a traveller staying in a village who encounters an Ankou whose task is to ferry the dead (making his boat the original Brittany Ferry).  On impulse the visitor accompanies this weird figure on one of his regular journeys to a nearby island with a cargo of souls.  ‘The Princess Alice’ is based on the sinking of the paddle steamer on the Thames in 1878, though it is set in 1998 when a newcomer to prosaic Deptford buys some books and finds an old diary among her purchases which may hold the key to mysterious crying she can hear in the night.

‘The Revenant’ features the marshes at Fishbourne, Sussex, and evokes the dreary post-war atmosphere beautifully (reminding me of Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger), let down by an unsubtle ending.  ‘Sainte-Thérèse’ is a satisfying account of a mousy wife having an epiphany in a provincial French church and finding the strength to leave her bullying husband.  ‘Red Letter Day’ recounts a bereaved woman’s visit to the Pyrenees, on the trail of her Cathar ancestor and contemplating suicide, where she finds herself alone in a snowbound inn.  The narration achieves a level of ambiguity as she gradually melds with the place, finding in its welcome ‘an everlasting present’ that is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Less successfully, ‘On Harting Hill is a standard retelling of the phantom hitchhiker trope, and its recycling is echoed in a couple of lines: ’‘That Whitsun, I was late getting away’ (‘The Whitsun Weddings’) becomes ‘That afternoon, I was late getting away’ ).  ‘I turned my collar to the cold and damp’ (‘The Sound of Silence’) becomes ‘Turning my collar to the cold and damp’.  Such intertextual additions, if that is what they are, rather than unconscious cribbing, are distracting.  ‘Duet’, first published here, starts well in building its atmosphere and shows that it is not always ghosts outside which haunt us because we are perfectly capable of haunting ourselves; unfortunately the twist is telegraphed too early, and the concept is well worn, being firmly in the ‘you thought it was two people but it turns out it was only one with a split personality’ genre.

‘The Drowned Village’ seems like it is going to be a dark tale involving witchcraft and even sacrifice.  However it ends anticlimactically with the nice people from the Breton village merely assisting the souls who live in the flooded village offshore (having presumably decided against employing the services of the Ankou), by supplying them with a magic light that works underwater.  Why the villagers felt the need to wear hoods during the ceremony is not clear, other than to fill the reader with foreboding.  On the other hand the gifted young Gaston, who witnesses the business, has been suddenly orphaned by his drunken parents driving their trap into a dew-pond.  Perhaps it was an accident, or perhaps the villagers had taken it on themselves to give him a helping hand in life.  Their demise was rather convenient.

A couple – ‘Why the Yew Tree Lives so Long’ and ‘In the Theatre at Night’ – evoke a mood, and though enjoyable have the feel more of writing exercises.  The final piece is a short play, ‘Syrinx’, that was produced for television, and while it has a ghost it is much more about the effect the death of a teenager has on those left behind.  Apparently it is popular with amateur dramatic groups so for their sakes it was worth making the text readily available, but on the page it feels plodding.

The book is nicely packaged, each of the stories prefaced by a drawing to set the mood.  Overall it’s a pleasant collection, with frictionless writing, for which reason many of the tales do not linger long in the memory, and you get the feeling that Mosse is happier writing at greater length.  It’s a book best left for a winter’s evening, sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of something warming to hand.



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