December 12, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Keep" by F. Paul Wilson

Title: The Keep

Author: F. Paul Wilson
Published: Tor (2nd edition, 2008); first published 1981
Pages: 403
Genre: Horror
ISBN-10: 0-7653-6136-1
ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-6136-3

This year's Bram Stoker Awards bestowed F. Paul Wilson with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The man is one of the preeminent names in horror literature, has been for decades now, and this is the first chance I've had to sample his work. And I must say I really liked it. Chalk it up to ignorance if you're wondering why it's taken this long to read one of Wilson's novels. Now that I have, however, I'm keenly looking forward to reading another.

The Keep is the first book of six in his Adversary Cycle saga. I guess fans of his work are more likely to rave about his "Repairman Jack" series of books, a character that debuts in one of the follow-up books, but that's a character and a series for another time. This book, however, does feature a predecessor to Repairman Jack ... just don't ask me which one.

The story takes place in Romania during World War 2. A Nazi SS commander is promoted to oversee the installation and operation of a new concentration camp in Romania. But before he can get comfortable in his new post, he must first prove himself by dealing with a sudden headache for the German army. The leader of a group of Nazi soldiers, occupying a keep in a remote area of the Romanian mountains, has sent a message of distress to his superiors: "Something is murdering my men." The SS commander must lead a squad to the keep where the soldiers are stationed and neutralize the threat in order to prove he deserves his promotion.

He quickly learns that the one killing off his fellow Germans is not a mere enemy combatant, but an elusive and excedingly dangerous entity that's been awakened and set loose upon all who reside in the keep through the night--a soldier killed each night the Nazis have occupied the keep. Desperate for answers and a quick solution to the problem, the Nazi commanders set aside from personal grudge long enough to "enlist" a Jewish scholar with intimate knowledge of the keep and its history to find out what it is that is killing them off and seemingly defying all rational modes of engagement. The scholar is decrepit, however, and requires the assistance of his nursemaid of a daughter to accompany him, which only serves to inflame the Nazi soldiers and SS thugs further in the presence of a young woman.

The daughter seems to captivate all men, including the commanders,and a roguish stranger recently arrived to the neighboring village with a keen interest in the keep and those inside. Even the one murdering the Nazis seems to be attracted to her.

So the stage is set. Can the Nazis defeat the apparent lone killer within the keep before they're all killed by it or each other? Or are all of their fates sealed within the keep's walls?

It's hard to believe a Nazi could be portrayed as a sympathetic character, but F. Paul Wilson did it in this novel. Granted, he accomplished that be creating even more despicable Nazis that make the "tamer" soldiers pale by comparison. And while you might be able to discount the stereotypical characterization of a bigoted and overzealous SS commander and his thugs, the counterbalance of the stationed Nazi officer he butts heads with in the keep brings out a refreshing bit of verisimilitude through all of the chaos and conflict occurring through the story.

Beyond the turmoil between the Nazis and their killer, and between specific Nazis in the keep themselves, there is the added question of the killer's true identity. "Vampire" is the word that is thrown about by the soldiers soon after the killings start, but no one who gets a good look at their assailant lives the night to reveal the identity. And even the Jewish scholar finds himself at a loss when he has to decide who is the greater enemy, and realizes he may have to choose an unholy alliance with one or the other if he wants his daughter to survive. Plus, the subplot of the roguish stranger and his unspoken past with the keep and its inhabitant adds more mystery through the novel.

While the story felt a bit disjointed in the beginning, as all of the characters have yet to converge in one place, the pace stays steady and everything comes in crystal clear soon enough in the early part of the novel. There is a great balance between the characters' stories and histories, and most are fleshed out nicely to give everyone a more organic feel. This is the kind of story, with its assortment of characters and setting, that could feel like a cardboard laden dinner theater, but Wilson avoids such a trap by creating a tension that hits from multiple angles.

While this is the first book in a series of six, it feels like a stand-alone novel and the climax provides a great payoff with all questions answered and no stone left unturned. And just when you think you are safe in rooting for the guy killing off all the Nazi scum, Wilson flips the script more than once to make you wonder if the few "good guys" in the story stand any chance at all of making it out of the keep alive.

There's suspense, mystery, action, and even a smattering of romance and levity for good measure. I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to enjoy the second book, The Tomb, when I get around to reading it. I certainly don't regret having read this novel, and look forward to reading more of Wilson's work. I dare say that Lifetime Achievement Award is well deserved.

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