The familiar tremor of anticipation that comes over horror story fans when they hold a new book in their hands is mitigated somewhat by the presence of a swastika on the cover. They want Cthulhu, not Goebbels, vampirism rather than Nazism. However, in the case of "The Keep," they get both.
The author acknowledges his debt to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Ervin Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, the three master storytellers of the early "Weird Tales," but he obviously noticed on his way to the typewriter that such current writers as Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum were mining successfully a different lode. Thus the reader gets a "twofer." Actually, as students of the Third Reich know, Nazis and occultism go together like bats and an old dark house, but when it comes to fiction, it just never works really well. They are two different kinds of evil.
"The Keep" opens with a prologue that explains how Captain Klaus Woermann of the regular German army and SS officer Erich Kaempffer, personal enemies since the previous war, are destined to clash at a remote outpost in the Romanian Alps. The year is 1941 and Woermann, a loyal German soldier who despises the Nazi party, has been relegated to protecting a strategic mountain pass; Kaempffer, licking his chops over the prospect of being assigned his very own concentration camp, has been commanded to find out first the meaning behind alarming messages sent to headquarters by Woermann.
"Request immediate relocation. Something is murdering my men." Naturally the reaction to this is a straightforward one: two squads of kommandos are dispatched under Kaempffer to punish whatever local partisans are engaging in guerrilla activity. The fact that Woermann's wording implies that human beings might not be responsible -- well, the Nazis weren't reading "Weird Tales."
There's a little bit of comeuppance in all this, repaying evil with evil. Woermann, a decent man, thinks "Let the SS come . . . Let them taste the fear they so dearly loved to spread. Let them learn to believe in the unbelievable." In the process, a great many soldiers are vilely slaughtered within the confines of the fortress they are supposed to be protecting. So who are the villains? A Jewish folklore authority who's been brought from Bucharest, once the Nazis become superstitious, feels one way: "The devil in the keep wears a black uniform with a silver Death's Head on his cap." But then his scholarly zeal has caused him to be tolerant of the undead monster from the bowels of the castle who's responsible for the reign of terror.
He thinks, you see, that he has managed to make contact with a creature who will put Transylvanian Studies on the map in universities around the world -- an articulate but nasty-tempered vampire named Molasar. If this were the major plot, "The Keep" could respectably wear the mantle of commercial "schlock shock," but Wilson has read his Lovecraft and Smith too well. Ancient races older than vampires come into it, as does an epic clash between representatives of the cosmic Axis and Allies.
Lovecraft himself was a major expounder of the beliefs he sought to convey in his stories and novels. "We must judge a weird tale," he says, "not by the author's intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a 'high spot' must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature." By this criterion "The Keep" makes it when Wilson is being his least ambitious; as soon as he lets his monster palaver it's like Garbo laughing -- her career was never the same.
"The Keep" might have worked better without the storm-trooper trappings; here the clash between good and evil is diluted by the presence of two evils. One could argue also that monsters and other horror creatures are more powerful when they're felt and not seen or heard. The worst part is that Molasar just skirts being comic once he is stage center. Still, there are some good creepy moments, even though they're the sort that might be dismissed by Lovecraft as merely "gruesome."