Tag Archives: F. Paul Wilson

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

<em class="BookTitle">The Keep</em>, F. Paul Wilson

Tor, 1981 (2006 revision), 403 pages, C$4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35705-4

I’m always impressed when the years move on and leave certain books unaffected. To the dismay of anyone trying to write for posterity (if there’s such a thing when there are bills to pay), decades can be very unkind to any kind of fiction. Beyond contemporary settings, there are dozens of ways for books to be stuck in time: outdated social assumptions, unfashionable prose or crude genre conventions. Even in Science Fiction or Fantasy, setting a story in the future or the past doesn’t necessarily erase the mark left by the writer’s present. So imagine my surprise to find out that F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep still feels just as fresh today as when it was published in 1981.

There’s a trick, of course: The version of The Keep I read isn’t the version that was published twenty-five years ago. It’s been reviewed, retouched and reprinted, validated and enhanced along the way like few other early-eighties horror novels have been. Dig deep enough, and you will even find that it was adapted for the big screen in 1983 by none other than director Michael Mann. (Good luck seeing it, though: The film is conspicuously absent from DVD format catalogs, and rumor has it that Mann himself isn’t too keep on reviving it.)

Then there’s the detail that the book was written to be a World War 2-era supernatural thriller, already taking it further away from instantly-recognizable contemporary cultural references. At a time where horror novels simply required a monster and people to slaughter, Wilson aimed for more ambitious targets by reaching back in time and space to set his monster/haunted-house story in 1941 Romania. When a group of Nazi soldiers occupies an isolated keep deep in the Transylvanian Alps, they awaken something out for their blood, at a determined pace of one death per night. Terrified, they ask for help; alas, the elite reinforcements prove ineffective. Desperate, they end up reaching out to an expert on local legends, a wheelchair-bound intellectual who happens to be Jewish. But even the scholar and his daughter don’t suspect the repercussions of what has been unleashed in the keep…

One of the reasons why this book is still in print today is that it forms the cornerstone of Wilson’s Adversary cycle, which also spawned Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series. While The Keep initially looks and feels like a particularly ornate vampire story, Wilson has a larger framework in mind, and the barest hints of the menace are revealed in this first volume. Suffice to say that this isn’t a mere vampire at play, and that the roots and consequences of the novel won’t be limited to 1941.

But the best reason for the novel’s continued popularity is that it’s slickly written and a hugely enjoyable page-turner. Wilson’s prose is clean and compelling, and his ability to keep readers coming back for “one more chapter” is terrific. While the tight suspense of the first half eventually cedes way to a looser second half, the strong characters keep up interest until the end despite ever-larger developments. The delight with which Wilson multiplies the complications (by bringing in “good” Nazis, the looming menace of another concentration camp, a mysterious stranger traveling to the Keep, unexpected shifts in allegiances, and so on) is the stuff from which satisfying novels are made of. Plus, hey, it’s all-too-easy to lose sight of the most excellent premise: Nazis versus monsters! What’s not to like?

The historical detail is convincing, Wilson generally avoids the easy Nazi clichés and the first 150 pages are a model of increasing tension. No small wonder that The Keep still attracts an audience more than a quarter-century after its publication. Even for experienced horror readers, the novel still carries its own kick. There’s a good chance that The Keep will still be just as readable in 2031.

Masque, F. Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Warner Aspect, 1998, 342 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-51977-4

It’s funny how books can remind you of food.

I have absolutely no idea why this is so.

Maybe it’s a purely personal prejudice: after all, I can’t go a few days without some reading much as I can’t go more than a few hours without food.

Maybe it’s because you eventually learn that beyond “good” and “bad” books, there are books that are perfectly adequate without being any good and there are great books that somehow fail to satisfy you. Rather like food doesn’t necessarily divide itself between “poisonous” and “healthy”.

Masque, for instance, is the SF equivalent of a meat and potato meal with a small amount of soya sauce thrown in: completely ordinary, but with a few interesting bits.

Since van Vogt’s Slan (and probably even before then), science-fiction has always had a soft spot for ostracised minorities with special talents. In Masque, we have Mimes, a group of genetically-tailored humanoids that can change their shape according to specially programmed templates. In this story, all Mimes are owned by warring corporations (yes, it’s a wacky wonderful cyberpunk future all over again!) to be used as spies whose identities can be re-created at each mission.

(Scientific verisimilitude of humanoids able to change to another form in a matter of minutes is interestingly obscured by convincingly-sounding techno-babble, but the basic premise remains pretty unbelievable.)

Our hero is Tristan, a mime who is about to accomplish the final mission of his contract. It seems simple: infiltrate an enemy base and steal plans. Of course, obstacles will turn up. Whether it’s inconvenient scruples, mutants, underground sects, fighting pits or constancy duplicity, Tristan will soon discover he’s way over his head in tactical complexity.

Nobody will be shocked to learn that he meets a girl, kills bad guys and overthrows a regime or two before the end. No surprises here. Scant excitement too. Masque plays it very safe by using Standard Plot #32 and portraying the protagonist as a sweet, almost innocent hero-to-cheer-for. Why? Because he’s sweet, innocent and the protagonist.

Which is to say that there’s some character development, but not that much of it. No matter: even the freshest characters this side of Shakespeare couldn’t have saved this pretty generic SF thriller from bare adequacy.

Science-Fiction, like science itself, advances primarily through individual contributions to the whole discipline. Despite having done a competent job at cribbing together elements from umpteenth stories, Wilson and Costello’s advances to the genre are pretty equal to nil.

Still, Masque has a legitimate place in the SF ecology. By being an adequate thriller, it might be translated to the screen and become an unusually smart SF thriller. It might introduce readers to SF. It might be something to read while waiting for the next good SF novel. It might make money for Warner Aspect. It might entertain a few readers for a few hours.

Grossly overpriced as a hardcover (this is the prototypic paperback SF novel if I ever saw one!), Masque might still, given these caveats, be a good choice at your local library. But only if there’s nothing better available in the New Arrivals bookshelf.

Going back to the food analogy, Masque is average fast-food, competently put together by chefs who have the capacity to do much, much better. It will fill you up until the next meal, but will also quickly evaporate from your memory when said next meal will arrive.