Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson (1981): Just One Deathless Night

Nazism will forever be the benchmark by which all other human evil is measured (well, until something worse comes along). So what do you get when you pit the SS against an unimaginably malevolent supernatural force that, with their stubborn reliance on "rationality," they can scarcely comprehend? You get The Keep, the first horror novel from New Jersey physician/author F. Paul Wilson, who spent the 1970s writing science fiction tales when not practicing medicine (and apparently has spent the decades since writing a series that began with The Keep). There is nothing resembling science fiction in this highly-regarded (going by reviews on Goodreads and Amazon) "novel of deep horror," and it's dedicated to pulp horror/fantasy icons Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. This is no surprise - The Keep's fictional grimoires, subterranean lairs, manly adventuring, and even some sword-and-sorcerering, find Wilson emulating those classic writers but not slavishly imitating them. After finishing the novel, and at various moments throughout, I wished he had emulated those guys more. Much, much more.

A few words to preface this review: I read Wilson's short story collection Soft and Others couple years back and mostly hated it because his writing was so one-dimensional, dull, and tone deaf. Honestly, I think Wilson can be a downright terrible writer, so I was relieved to find when I began reading The Keep he'd seemingly improved (how could he not?). What keeps the reader glued to the pages is the sheer power of the story. I mean it's Nazis, in a keep - a type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility, Wikipedia tells me - battling an evil entity who slaughters Nazis handily. I'm in!

Or... am I?

 Original 1981 hardcover

So we've got a German army, led by Captain Klaus Woermann, stationed in a keep high in the Alps of Romania, to protect precious oil fields needed for the Nazi war effort. But when two grunts dig into the fortification trying to find out if the oddly-shaped metal crosses embedded in the stone walls everywhere in the keep are made of real gold and silver, they find behind those stones an opening that leads to... Well, evil and darkness and decapitation. And unsolvable impossible deaths follow after, each night for a week, till an exhausted, reluctant Woermann sends for help from the Nazis, whom he regards with skepticism and distrust, himself too old to have been seduced by the charismatic Hitler (I found this detail quite satisfying). He words his missive carefully: Request immediate relocation. Something is murdering my men... That ought to get their attention!

Enter SS Major Erich Kaempffer, an honest-to-God Nazi, and his einsatzkommandos, reinforcements for the beleaguered soldiers, to find out what the hell that something is that's killing Woermann's men. Kaempffer is eager to begin his post as commandant of a coming-soon death camp in Ploiesti, and feels this assignment is almost beneath him, but must impress his superiors. If he succeeds in discovering the murderer, he knows he will make Woermann look like an ineffective fool - something he's longed to do since Woermann witnessed an unfortunate incident of cowardice on Kaempffer's part in the Great War. The two men barely tolerate one another, and their conflict, well-done by Wilson in the first third of the novel, propels much of the story.

But Kaempffer has no luck sniffing out the killer even though he scoffs at notions that it might be a supernatural agent of some kind - surely it's just local guerrillas. Then his men start turning up dead, two of them even walk right into his room from their post, their throats torn out, and collapse before him (all kinda cool). Reluctantly he accepts the advice of the local innkeeper - after terrorizing him and threatening to kill the nearby villagers he's taken into the keep - and brings in Theodore Cuza, an old sick man who lost his position as an esteemed professor because of his Judaism. Cuza is an expert on the history and folklore of the region. Along with Cuza comes his 30-ish daughter Magda, his caretaker, beautiful and untouched. Meanwhile, a strange scarred unnamed red-headed man is doggedly traveling miles across land and sea, avoiding wartime danger zones, for some unknown reason to meet an evil in Romania he thought had been vanquished ages before...

And now The Keep begins to crumble. One prominent weakness is the thoughtless, cliched romance that grows between Magda and that redheaded man - Glenn, at first - a relationship practically clipped with scissors out of a cheap historical or Harlequin romance novel, seemingly inserted to make the novel fit the bestseller mold: She had found the man unattractive in the extreme; in addition to his odor and grimy appearance, there was a trace of arrogance and condescension that she found equally offensive. Ugh! There is no originality, no human insight, just gross lazy simplifications about men and women and sex. Would that Wilson had just left this part out completely, or rewrote the passages another time or two to tone down the rank sexism, or at least evince a sort of detached or ironic attitude about it. Or something to make it palatable, anything!

And the depiction of Nazis and their reign of terror - an easily exploitable topic, a hack writer's dream! I like tasteless exploitation/horror when done right, but Wilson doesn't rise - or sink - to the occasion. The Nazis are barely cardboard - as the novel goes on, all the characters become cardboard pieces. When we first meet the god-like evil denizen of the keep, a baddie named Molasar, there are the de rigueur horror moments, such as his "friendship" with Ol' Vlad Tepes back in the day and talk about feeding off the evils of humanity. But Molasar is dressed like a comic-book villain and speaks like one too: "I have my own means of moving about which does not require doors or secret passages. A method quite beyond your comprehension."  My God, who knew evil was so dorky?

 Map of the Keep itself

(Some spoilers) Other faults: Wilson makes an interesting observation about vampire lore when Cuza, a devout Jew, sees Molasar's fear of the Christian cross - does that mean that faith is the true one, and not Cuza's Judaism? He agonizes over his own potential loss of belief, but for Wilson, it's only a dead end. Later Cuza gets Molasar all riled up when he informs him what "death camps" are and that the Nazis are planning on rounding up Molasar's Wallachian "people" and exterminating them. So Malasar decides he's going to kill Hitler and his crew, with Cuza helping out as daytime dogsbody, getting out of the keep and up into Hitler's shit. Yep, that hoariest of tropes, KILL HITLER, seems too convenient a turnabout (to be fair this novel is over 30 years old so I guess the trope wasn't as hoary then). Molasar's gonna gain power from all that Nazi badness, don't you know, then take over the world...

1983 Dutch edition - creepier than any scene in the book

I haven't even mentioned the thudding dialogue, unimaginative scenes of violent mayhem, the climax of ageless good v. evil, and the sappy, unearned epilogue, all of which have been seen a hundred, a thousand times before. It all adds up to the reader never feeling that tingle, that can't-turn-pages-fast-enough vibe that makes this kind of mainstream bestseller work. There's a notable lack of atmosphere too, which makes The Keep deadly dull in places: I mean, the setting is a fucking castle in the mountains of Romania occupied by terrified Nazis because a mysterious monstrous vampire is trying kill them all! You gotta work it hard in the opposite direction to suck the creepy out of that set-up. And Wilson, unfortunately, is up to the task.

Yes, even as the bodies piled up and the mystery deepened, I struggled with this one. You'd think a horror novel like this would be pretty bad-ass and the ever-popular "unputdownable," but it's not at all. I'd put it down for a few days, a week, and almost forget I'd been reading it. I'd pick it up and start yawning after a couple pages, since Wilson's prose style overall is vapid. That dedication to HPL, Howard, and Smith becomes ludicrous - this is some of the lamest "pulp" I've read, and trying to excuse its lameness by calling it pulp doesn't help. If Wilson weren't such a trite, banal writer - Never had the supernatural been so real to him. Never would he be able to view the world or existence itself as he had before -  he could've produced a richly detailed novel of historical horror and eternal evil. But neither his handling of the supernatural nor of the natural has enough conviction or weight; the story is there, and like the proverbial sculptor who knows his subject is hiding in that hunk of marble, all F. Paul Wilson has to do is find it. But most often he doesn't, or he can't; The Keep is a boring blank surface that, while sometimes interesting in and of itself, refuses to reveal the true horror novel that resides within.


Jason Patteson said...

I actually have a feeling that most people who remember this book fondly in any way is working off of nostalgia based upon the later part of the cycle which is based on Repairman Jack. The Repairman Jack books are pretty decent little books that have by far better writing (I mean Wilson will never be a King, even if King idolizes the man) and some decent plot weaving.

I found all of the non-Repairman Jack FPW books to be a bit tedious and boring.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

Yeah, F. Paul Wilson never quite did it for me, either. Aside from his contributions to a few choice anthologies and Midnight Mass, his vampire apocalypse novel, I've not really delved into his sizable catalogue. I don't remember much of Midnight Mass, aside from it initially coming off as a sort of weak riff on Matheson's I Am Legend. A weak riff that had some sharp moments of sexism and Islamophobia. He also returns to the somewhat intriguing idea of the implied primacy of Christianity in Midnight Mass, because it features a cycling rabbi who wards off vampires with a large wooden crucifix. The implications of this idea, while somewhat fascinating, kind of got on my nerves after a while.

Sorry for the rambling comment, Will, but it's always refreshing to see that you're not afraid to use your blog to call out some of the overrated poster boys of the golden age of paperback horror (e.g. Laymon, Wilson). Keep up the great work and a belated happy new year to you.

J F Norris said...

I expected so much from this based on all the accolades and its inclusion on so many Best Horror Novel lists. I agree with you -- it's overrated hack work. I hated it. I wrote a scathing review of it over at amazon.com long before I started my blog. (BTW, I also tore into its nauseating, eyeball- rolling, laughable Harlequin romance section.) Just another vampire rip-off with Nazis and some sword and sorcery nonsense thrown in for the hell of it. The Keep is clearly a love letter to the WEIRD TALES stories of Lovecraft, Bloch and Howard, among others. But it's a very poor imitation of all those greats. There are others who were inspired by the WEIRD TALES writers who wrote well. This is a novice writer's book that shows all his weaknesses and indulgences. I tried to give Wilson a second chance by reading The Tomb and I didn't like that one any better. I never finished it.

The Passing Tramp said...

Wow, this takes me back. I read this back when it came out, when I was fifteen I guess, the time when I was reading some King, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Sword of Shannara, Frank Herbert, etc. I recall I liked it!

I remembered that pb cover immediately. Only horror I read now are classical ghost stuff, like M. R. James, don't read fantasy, sci-fi.

Thanks for the blast from the past, even if you didn't like the book! A lot of those things we are nostalgic about aren't that great when we return to them.

Tim Mayer said...

One of the few times where the movie version was an improvement.

Craig J said...

Just last week I finished Wilson`s THE TOUCH, and realized that I had been mislead on Wilson`s storytelling ability all these years. It was limited in its ambition, and left me with no desire to finally get around to his other work.

bluerosekiller said...

Holy shit guys, not a one of you liked this one?!!
How unusual, considering it's usual lofty status among the better known genre novels of the period & with it being the first book in Wilson's much acclaimed "Adversary Cycle" of novels. But, that's cool.
I quite enjoy hearing smart opposing viewpoints regarding things that are usually universally appreciated by most.
I was a big fan of it back in the day. Though, I would never place it ( or the "Adversary Cycle" series of novels ) alongside any of my long held favorites.
As I recall, I REALLY enjoyed some aspects of it, but remember being bored by long stretches of it as well.
I do recall being VERY excited about Michael Mann's film adaption & eagerly awaiting it's release in early '83 though. And then, the experience of sitting there in the theater on opening night & being absolutely dumbfounded by what wound up on the screen! LOL.
Not that I hated the film, because, it was/is bizarrely beautiful in spots, but makes no sense whatsoever...
It's a very dated, overwrought example of over the top '80's excess, ALL style, no substance. But, it's certainly memorable. THAT'S for sure.

DJ Mike G said...

I couldn't agree with TMHF more on this one. I remember being really excited to read it, it sounds so awesome...then being really let down. It is a poorly written, dull book. After being so bored by the book, I was hesitant to watch the movie. I was very pleasantly surprised by how cool the movie was. The movie is WAY better and is definitely worth a watch for all horror fans.

Padded Cell said...

I actually liked "The Keep", but I hated Michael Mann's movie.

Will Errickson said...

Mann disowned the movie; a good idea. Dig the Tangerine Dream soundtrack though!