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REVIEW: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson Title: The Keep
Author: F. Paul Wilson
Pub Date: December 7th, 2010 (reprint)
August 1981 (original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A gothic horror novel with an interesting monster, solid early tension but a disappointing climax.

In The Keep (first in his Adversary Cycle), F. Paul Wilson does an excellent job subverting staid vampire tropes and reveling in the devices of Gothic horror. Wilson’s deft command of craft as shown in his management of setting, and the gradual reveal of his monster make this book a worthwhile purchase.

Set in 1941 in a remote mountain keep high in the Romanian Alps, the book pits two inhuman monsters against each other. On the one hand, we have the Nazi army. The Nazis are realists, hard-hearted murderers marching across Europe, slaughtering innocents by the millions. On the other hand, we have a supernatural monster (possibly a vampire, possibly not) who brutally murders Nazis one-by-one in the night. With a setup like this, Wilson has an opportunity to do one of four things: he can turn the vampire into a hero (a fun role reversal for a traditional monster), he can turn one of the Nazis into a hero (a challenging prospect, considering their historical baggage), he can show both as somewhat-justified, or he can show both as monstrous. Wilson primarily chooses to take the easiest of these four paths, keeping both the Nazis and the creature who murders them monstrous.

Klaus Woermann, a disillusioned Nazi officer, is given a somewhat-punitive assignment to guard a remote Romanian castle. Throughout the book, Woermann is the only Nazi depicted in any kind of positive light. He is painted as conflicted, not enamoured of the fuhrer, and disgusted by what the Nazis are doing to the Jews. The scenes written from Woermann’s perspective are interesting in that they show a tentativeness in Wilson’s characterization that is absent when he writes from other (less morally ambiguous) characters, like Magda Cuza or the SS commander Kaempffer. It is unclear to me whether this tentativeness stems from the author’s uncertainty as to how sympathetic to make the Nazi, or whether it stems from Woermann’s own uncertainties as to his loyalty. Irrespective of the source of this tentativeness, I found it an interesting aspect of the character that lent some degree of depth to him.

When Woermann’s troops are stationed in the mysterious keep, they inadvertently set loose a monster that had been trapped there, presumably for centuries. The monster proceeds to murder Woermann’s men, one Nazi per night. As more of his troops are murdered, Woermann eventually gets assistance from the SS through Erich Kaempffer, an absolutely monstrous officer who gleefully intends to set up concentration camps in Romania. The SS officer, and all of the troops under his command, are painted as absolutely inhuman creatures. There is no moral ambiguity, no tentativeness in their characterization. They are vile, cruel, and vicious. Thankfully, they don’t quite veer into the realm of caricature, but their commander at times comes perilously close.

The scenes of terror told from the Nazis point of view are absolutely delightful: Wilson never shows us the monster directly, instead revealing the effects the monster has on the environment and the Nazis themselves. Because the Nazis are never made entirely sympathetic, our fear is kept slightly distanced. Some might view this as a weakening of the book’s horror, but I felt that it actually helped make me more aware of the monster and his actions. The result was to leave the reader uncertain what kind of monster we are dealing with, while slowly building the tension through solid pacing. The monster shares certain traits with a Dracula-esque vampire, but there are enough new and different traits to leave the Nazis (and the reader) unsure of what we are dealing with. Wilson’s restraint is used to excellent effect in these scenes, and they leave the reader hungry to learn more about the monster’s nature.

Unable to stem the loss of life, the terrified Nazis turn to Josef Cuza, an ailing Jewish expert on local folklore, and his daughter Magda. These two characters are the only purely noble characters in the book. The scenes told from their standpoint make it clear that they are sympathetic, righteous, honorable folk…nothing like either the Nazis or the monster. This portrayal of the Cuzas is perhaps one of the better pieces of characterization executed in this book. By setting the Cuzas up as purely good, fundamentally righteous, innocent, and noble, Wilson sets them up for a beautiful fall. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the details but it is exactly the Cuzas characterization and how it subtly changes over the course of the book that lends the novel its thematic tension.

The readers learn more about the monster as the Cuzas work to unravel the mystery of what is killing the Germans. The gradual reveal of the monster continues Wilson’s tweaking of the vampire mythos. Throughout, Wilson keeps the monster almost, but not quite, a classical vampire. At one point, Josef Cuza remarks that the monster might not be a real vampire as the myths give us, but that it might be a real creature that at one point inspired those myths. That the reader can believe this theory is a testament to the fine line between classic tropes and innovation that Wilson used to depict the supernatural monster at the heart of this book.

The tension in the book is very well managed, right up to the moment of the final reveal. Throughout the first eighty percent of the novel, Wilson raises the stakes and the reader’s expectations. By the time the truth (and the monster) are fully revealed, the reader expects something powerful, dark, and gritty. Instead, the explanation introduces a cosmology that the reader had little preparation for earlier in the book. The surprising cosmology is clearly a setup for subsequent books in the Adversary Cycle, but here in that series’ first book it struck me as deus ex machina. While the surprising cosmology weakened the climax, the climax remains reasonably solid: the action is dramatic, the stakes and tension significant. But the climax falls just shy of the very high expectations created by the excellent majority of the novel.

In all, I would say that The Keep is a solid work of horror, with good characterization, excellent tone and setting management, and fine control of tension right up to the climax. Wilson’s depiction and gradual explanation of the monster is exceptionally well done, and the way he undermines certain character’s righteousness is poignant and sensitive. However, the excellent ingredients that make up the bulk of the book leave the expectations very high for the climax, which is weakened by the introduction of an unestablished cosmology. Fans of Gothic horror will find much to enjoy in this book, and I am curious how the remaining books in the Adversary Cycle develop the cosmology further. Having introduced it in the series’ first book, I suspect (and hope) that the subsequent installments will make more effective use of it.

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