Books: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

I had actually been wanting to read F. Paul Wilson’s 1981 novel The Keep for quite a while, for several reasons: one, a number of listeners of my book reviews ardently recommended it; two, I had vague but fond memories of the 1983 Michael Mann film adaptation (though admittedly I haven’t seen it in years and I’m not sure how well it holds up); and three, I had actually read another one of Wilson’s novels, The Tomb, a few years back and enjoyed it quite a bit, though I don’t recall a great deal about it otherwise.

The Keep is actually the first in what was originally called The Nightworld Cycle, but eventually came to be dubbed The Adversary Cycle. As far as I’m aware, however (and I could be totally wrong; please correct me if so), The Keep was initially intended to be a stand-alone story, and only later became retroactively connected to the other six books in the series. As I mentioned, I did read The Tomb, the first book to feature Wilson’s iconic character of Repairman Jack and the second book in The Adversary Cycle, but it has pretty much nothing to do with The Keep, and Repairman Jack also has his own series of books which later intertwine with The Adversary Cycle. Confused yet? Me too. Moving on.

Anyway, The Keep seems to be a pretty highly regarded book in horror circles, appearing on several “best horror novels of the 20th century” style lists (though it also has its detractors). It’s very much on the mainstream-slash-pulp end of the horror spectrum, with nods to H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and other greats of the pulp horror era. Overall, I was really into the first half-to-three-quarters of the book, though I thought it weakened a bit toward the end when it went in a more dark fantasy type direction. I have liked a handful of dark fantasy or sword and sorcery style tales in my day, but it’s not generally my goblet of blood, if you catch my meaning.

The story of The Keep is set in 1941, in the early days of World War II. In the remote mountains of Romania, a small, mysterious fortress simply known as “the keep” becomes interesting to the Nazi High Command for strategic purposes. The structure’s origins are a complete enigma: no one knows who built it or exactly how old it is, but it’s been maintained in tip-top condition by generations of villagers for centuries.

The man initially in command of the German soldiers stationed in the keep—Captain Klaus Woermann, an older man who fought in the First World War and isn’t the biggest fan of the Nazi Party or their death camps—sends an ominous message to the higher-ups at the SS: “Something is killing my men.”

Woermann’s colleague/rival, Erich Kaempffer, who is the Naziest Nazi to ever rock a swastika, is sent on a mission to sort out whatever the hell is going on at the keep. He’s gunning for the coveted position of commander of the new death camp the Nazis are setting up in Ploiești, Romania, and he hopes that by bringing a swift, decisive conclusion to the situation at the keep, he can secure the desired promotion, as well as make his rival (who also happened to be the only person to ever witness him being a coward) look like an incompetent fool.

The problem is that the ongoing state of affairs at the keep is much more complicated than it appears at first blush. Although Kaempffer arrogantly believes that the gruesome murders of Woermann’s men can be attributed to local rebels, it soon becomes clear that the deaths can’t be placed at the feet of anything human.

For one thing, the keep seemed completely harmless until two of Woermann’s soldiers, believing that the thousands of ersatz crosses embedded on the inside of the building’s stone walls were made of gold and silver, tried to pry one of them loose and found what appeared to be some kind of secret passage. Immediately afterward, one of the men had his head torn off by an unseen force, and after that, the killings came thick and fast. It’s almost as if something was released from the bowels of the keep.

Once the bodies begin to pile up, the officers double up on security, but it doesn’t seem to do any good; there appears to be some being or creature that emerges from the darkness, rips off heads and tears out throats, then melts back into the shadows.

Unsure of what else to do and losing at least one man a day to this invisible menace, the officers summon the foremost authority on the keep and the folklore of the region, a scholar named Professor Theodor Cuza, who also happens to be Jewish. Cuza is wheelchair-bound and infirm, suffering from a crippling disease, so when he is forced to come to the keep, he is obliged to bring along his daughter Magda, a thirty-year-old scholar in her own right who has put her own life largely on hold to serve as her father’s caretaker.

Hovering around the fringes of this core story, at least in the first half of the book, is a mysterious red-haired man who seems to have some connection to the keep, and makes it his sworn mission to get there at all costs, before it’s too late.

The set-up of this part of the book is great: atmospheric, chilling, and page-turning, as we see the emissaries of the so-called “master race” trembling in fear as some unknown thing picks them off one by one. It never gets old seeing Nazis get their heads ripped clean off their shoulders, after all, and even though you know the monster is probably some kind of vampire or vampire equivalent, there’s enough intrigue and tension to really keep you invested in the story.

And even though I’m usually a big advocate of not over-explaining your monster, I didn’t even mind (and there are plot spoilers from here on out, so please be warned) the demystification of the creature that took place about halfway through, where it’s revealed that it’s actually a moroi (something like a proto-vampire/demon deal) who calls itself Radu Molasar. The main thing that was interesting about this part was the fact that Professor Cuza, who is fascinated by the monster, strikes up something of an uneasy alliance with the moroi, as the creature makes him believe that it wants to wipe out the Germans (in an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type scenario).

I also really liked the underlying main conflict of the tale, that even though the moroi promised to eliminate the Nazis and end their campaign of terror, letting the moroi win might actually be far worse than anything the Nazis could ever cook up. The way that the moroi was able to manipulate Professor Cuza, a decent and honorable man, into doing its bidding was also fantastic, really insidious and believable.

But once the red-haired man arrives at the keep and is disclosed to be named Glenn (actually Glaeken, but he calls himself Glenn), I felt the story lost a bit of steam, although I still enjoyed it overall. Once Glenn is established as a sort of ancient rival to the moroi and it goes toward a more fantasy-type angle, complete with magic swords and ancient spells, I felt the story lost a lot of the gothic creepiness it had when it was just Nazis in an old castle being stalked by a shadow figure. I also could have done without the romance-novel bits with Glenn and Magda, although I understand why they were there, since it introduced some complication and motivation surrounding Glenn’s ultimate goal.

I can see why this was such a best-seller and is so widely beloved; it’s a pretty compelling read, chock full of eerie, fog-shrouded castles in Eastern Europe, spooky vampires, reanimated corpses, and Nazis getting fucked up. It’s not particularly literary or elegant, being written in a pretty standard, straightforward way that occasionally falls victim to cliché. But all in all, I had a lot of fun with this one, and it made me want to revisit the film adaptation as well (although it seems that had a very troubled production and wasn’t all that well-received by critics or by the author, who actually wrote his own graphic novel series in 2005—illustrated by Matthew Dow Smith—in order to get his own visual conception of his story out into the world).

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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