Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2022
The Keep by F. Paul Wilson was published in 1981 and became an immediate bestseller. A movie based on the book was released two years later. (We'll come back to that.) It's easy to see why the book hit the bestseller lists. It has all the right elements, including an intriguing premise, spooky supernatural happenings, a passionate romance, and a fast-paced, easy-to-absorb narrative style. Wilson says his inspirations for the novel were the works of Robert Ludlum, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. As unlikely a mixture as that may sound, all of those influences are clear in the text.

As the story begins, the young Sturmbannführer (Major) Erich Kaempffer, of the SS, has been chosen for an important post in Romania. He'll be in charge of opening a death camp in Ploiești -- a real feather in his cap! But before he can take up his post, the German High Command wants Major Kaempffer to look into (and resolve) a small issue of some concern. Captain Klaus Woermann, of the regular German army, has been posted to a small castle-like structure in the Carpathian Mountains, where he and his men are to guard a strategic pass from the Russians. Woermann's men, however, are being killed, one by one, each night, and he can find no answer to what's causing those deaths. The Captain has, therefore, asked permission to move his men out of the keep. This is unacceptable to High Command, and, therefore, Major Kaempffer has been tasked with investigating the matter and putting an end to the killings.

Kaempffer finds this annoying for two reasons. First, it delays him from taking up his real work, which will advance his position in the party. Second, he has a history with Captain Woermann, whom he dislikes. The two men's distaste for each other adds an extra level of conflict throughout the book.

Back when Woermann arrived at the tiny village in the Dinu Pass, he discovered that the keep was maintained by a caretaker named Alexandru and his two sons. Alexandru warned the Captain that he and his men would not be able to stay in the keep. When asked why, the caretaker told him that bad dreams drive people out. Woermann, of course, found this amusing, dismissed the warnings, and had his men begin setting up electrical lights and generators, weapons emplacements, and barracks in the keep. As for who owns the keep and pays for its maintenance, Woermann could find no answers.

It is at first assumed that some kind of resistance movement must be behind the deaths of the German soldiers in the keep. When Kaempffer arrives, he uses brutal SS tactics to terrorize the villagers into giving up the rebels. But it becomes obvious that something else is in play when Kaempffer is confronted one night by the animated corpses of two of his own men.

Woermann and Kaempffer learn from the local innkeeper Iuliu that a Jewish scholar from the University of Bucharest, Professor Theodor Cuza, is an expert on the history of the region and may be able to help them figure out what's behind the killings. Although Kaempffer is unhappy with relying on a Jew, the dying Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda, who takes of him, are quickly brought to the keep against their will.

Cuza is highly resistant to the idea that he can help the Nazis in any way, but he becomes intrigued despite himself when he is brought a cache of books that had been found hidden in a small chamber in one of the walls. This is one of my favorite parts of the book, though it may pass right by non-fans of H.P. Lovecraft. As an in-joke on the author's part, all of the books and manuscripts that are brought to professor Cuza are directly taken from Lovecraft's work or other writers who participated in the Mythos-related writings. For those who are interested, here's the list:

• The Book of Eibon "du Nord translation" (from Clark Ashton Smith)
• De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Prinn (from Robert Bloch as Mysteries of the Worm)
• Cultes des Goules by the Comte d'Erlette (from Bloch)
• The Pnakotic Manuscripts "in manuscript form" (from H.P. Lovecraft)
• The Seven Cryptical Books of Hasan (from Lovecraft)
• Unaussprechlichen Kulten "by von Juntz" (from Robert E. Howard as Nameless Cults)
• Al Azif (from Lovecraft, original Arabic name for the Necronomicon)

The Ludlum influence becomes obvious at this point in the narrative. When Molasar, the evil presence trapped in the keep, reveals himself to Cuza, he asks questions about the Nazis who have invaded his domain and soon proclaims his desire to drive them from Romania and to kill their leader, Hitler, in Germany. Of course, Cuza becomes eager to ally himself with Molasar and to help him escape the keep. F. Paul Wilson does a masterful job of compounding lies with deceits with trickery and then slowly opening the reader's eyes to what's really going on.

Meanwhile, as these events transpire, in Portugal a red-haired man called Glenn has undertaken an arduous journey over land and sea to the Carpathian Mountains. In the course of his journey, it becomes clear that Glenn has not only an implacable will but superhuman strength. When he arrives at the keep, his mission is clouded in secrecy. He forms an uneasy alliance with Magda (who is a scholar in her own right), and eventually the two of them fall in love with each other. Together they will stand against Molasar (and Magda's father) in a battle with the highest stakes possible.

Wilson isn't afraid to make use of some horror movie tropes that may make you shake your head at their cheesiness, but nobody said this was high literature. If you're in the mood for a good thriller with a side helping of the supernatural, this is a fun read. And, spoiler, don't worry, the Nazis in the keep all come to a hideous end.

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After reading the book, I decided to rent the movie on Amazon Prime because I was curious to see how it made the transition from page to screen. As I watched, I kept thinking F. Paul Wilson must have felt like he'd been stabbed in the heart. Michael Mann, who wrote and directed the film, threw out almost everything that was good about the book and turned it into a disjointed, incomprehensible mess. Avoid it at all costs.
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