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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Brom's "Krampus: The Yule Lord"

Author:  Brom (pseudonym for Gerald Brom)  
Title:  Krampus: The Yule Lord  
Plot Type:  Horror with Dark Humor
Ratings:  V5; S0; H3
Publisher:  HarperCollins (10/2012)

     At its heart, is our most famous and far-reaching December holiday purely a Christian celebration, or is it simply an alteration of the ancient winter solstice festivals of pagan times? In this beautifully illustrated Christmas horror story, the author takes Norse and Germanic mythological figures from both sides of that question and sets them down in Boone County, West Virginia, to clash over the answer. (Boone County is a twin toand not all that far away fromthe Harlan County, Kentucky, mountains where Raylan Givens hunts down criminals on Justified—with the same kinds of well-meaning good old boys, some of whom are drug-dealing bad guys.) In this story, the villains are mostly humans, and the mythological co-stars are a mixture of good and evil. Because of the mythological origins of the lead characters, I have included quite a few "pink links" in my review so that if you are so inclined, you can click on those to get further information. You don't need that extra information to understand the story, though, because every major character has an extensive back-story that fully explains all of the eccentricities of his or her personality. At the end of the book, Brom includes a brief Afterword entitled "In Search of Krampus" in which he explains how he came upon the Krampus legend and the implications of his research.

     The story begins on Christmas Eve at a run-down trailer park in the tiny town of Good Hope as down-on-his-luck, wannabe musician Jesse Walker comes close to swallowing his gun as he drowns himself in whiskey and self-recrimination. His life could be the subject of a country-western song: Jesse is too broke to buy his daughter a Christmas gift); he has a mental block about performing his music; and his wife has left him, taking their daughter and going off to live with the town's police chief, a down-and-dirty lowlife who is in cahoots with the local crime boss, General Boggs. Just as Jesse realizes that he doesn't have the courage to kill himself, he witnesses a strange scene. Parked in front of his rusted-out truck is a sleigh led by the proverbial "eight tiny reindeer." All of a sudden, Santa Claus comes running up to the sleigh with a gang of devilish creatures hot on his heels. The sleigh takes off with the devils hanging on and beating up Santa, and soon thereafter two objects drop from the sky: one is the dead body of one of the devils, which falls onto a car across the road, and the other is Santa's sack, which plummets through the roof of Jesse's pathetic trailer. 

     When Jesse reaches into the sack, he finds that it contains any toy that he wishes for, so he wishes for every single doll that his daughter wants for Christmas. The earthbound part of the story follows Jesse as he deals with the consequences of a series of bad decisions and actions: his part-time job as a drug runner for Boggs, which Boggs won't allow him to quit; his deteriorating relationship with his wife, which may mean the loss of his daughter; and his new and scary relationship with the thuggish police chief, which may lead to serious injury or even death for Jesse. Just when Jesse thinks that his circumstances are as bad as they can possibly be, things get worse because now he has two sets of pursuers after himboth determined to retrieve Santa's sack (which is actually Loki's sackit's a long story!)

     Eventually, the devil creatures commandeer Jesse and his truck because none of them know how to drive, having died long before cars were invented. These fiendish men (and one woman) are called Belsnickels, and they are blood-sworn slaves to Krampus, Lord of the Yule. Krampus, who is the son of Loki, has been imprisoned in a cave for 500 years, and if he can get hold of Loki's sack, he can reach in and get the key to unlock his manacles. The man who imprisoned Krampus is Santa Claus (or jolly old St. Nicholas, as he sometimes calls himself). Santa used to be called Baldr, back in pre-Christian days when people worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In those days, he was an arrogant, narcissistic jerk who wound up in Hel and was then resurrected, only to turn on his rescuerKrampus. In the world of this novel, Santa now stands for modern-day Christianity, while Krampus represents the old pagan ways, when the line between good and evil was crystal clear and when people feared as well as revered their deities. Santa sees Krampus as a throwback to the olden times; Krampus views Santa as the worshipper of a single arrogant God who completely shuts out all other gods. 

     Here is Santa as he confronts Krampus: "Yule is dead. It is the past. Men need a path to enlightenment, to be set free from trivial earthbound concerns, to see beyond the limitations of flesh and blood. Life is fleeting, but the hereafter is eternal...Foolish beast, earth is nothing more than a rock in space...The world has moved on and left you behind. You have become nothing but a pathetic relic of days long dead." (pp. 201-202) Krampus responds: "You worship death. You and all the One Gods. They seduce mankind with their promises of glory attained in the hereafter, thus blinding men to the splendor before them here on earth. One can never expect to achieve enlightenment if one does not first live life to its fullest." (p. 202) And here what Krampus thinks about Christmas"Christmas is an abomination. A perversion! Yule is the true spirit of Mother Earth. Yule is the rebirth of the seasons. Without Yuletide, Mother Earth cannot heal herself...will wither and die." (p. 117) Obviously, the two will never see eye to eye. 

     I'll try a few analogies to point out their differences: In a very (VERY!) loose application of Freudian psychoanalytic terms, Krampus is the id (because he lives for pleasure without the restrictions of morality), Santa is the ego (because he tries to be a realistic, long-term thinker), and the Belsnickels are the super-ego (because they are always trying to curb Krampus' excesses). Or if you want to put it in pop culture terms, Krampus is a cross between the Grinch and Bad Santa (with his hot temper, his punishment of the naughty and his love of a good strong drink), and Santa Claus is a cross between Hulk Hogan and Brigham Young (lots of muscles, a stern visage, and multiple wives).

     So...Jesse is in the middle of this ancient feud, and he's also in the middle of a big mess with the local criminal element, who plan to hurt his wife and daughter if he doesn't cooperate. The story follows all of these story threads and more as it winds its way to a satisfactory conclusion. The horror elementsand they are relatively graphic (e.g., a few beheadings)are sprinkled throughout the story, alternating with intensely emotional scenes and a bit of comic relief. The only time that the story bogs down at all is when Krampus gets his first look at the evils of mountain-top strip mining and hill-country meth cooking. At that point, there is some pontificating about the evils that man does unto himself and to Mother Earth, but it doesn't last long and we're soon back to the action. As Krampus says, "Let us go and be terrible." (p. 313)

   Although the violence can get bloody and graphic, the story has plenty of dark humor, as in the scene in which Krampus watches a young boy as he mindlessly plays a video game, "staring glassy-eyed, his mouth half-open, looking like a lobotomy patient." Krampus concludes that the boy is bewitched, so he smashes the screen and announces to the stunned child, "You are free. The world is now yours. Go take it." As Krampus leaves the room he remarks to Jesse, "It seems there are other demons besides Santa's ghost to contend with." (p. 236) 

     Brom tells a terrific story, and he makes the book even richer with his liberal insertion of illustrationsboth in black and white and in rich, full color. This novel is definitely a page-turner that you won't want to put down until you read through to the very end. Here's a test: if you're the type of person who laughs out loud at Terry Gilliam's sadistic animated Chrismas card, then this book is definitely one that you will love.

    Click HERE to read the Prologue. (Scroll down below the illustration of Krampus.) Brom is an accomplished fantasy artist who has contributed illustrations for novels, games, comics, and film. That same page includes most of the color images from the book. Click HERE to read Brom's Wikipedia article.

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