From Gerald Brom, a man known for painting horrifying monsters, comes a novel that is quickly becoming a Christmas tradition in my household, and a perfectly bittersweet antidote for the usual saccharine Christmas stories. Let me put it this way, if Charlie Brown and the Grinch are the cookies and pie you have after Christmas dinner, then Krampus: The Yule Lord is Christmas dinner itself. Literal (literary?) soul food.
When I first read this book, I rarely put it down, except for stupid, useless things like food and sleep. Even after reading it for the second time, I found twists and turns I never expected. And that is such a wonderful feeling, so rare even in this ‘spoiler sensitive’ culture we live in today. I constantly wondered, “How are they ever going to get out of this situation alive?”
At the start of the novel, Jesse, our human protagonist, it is Christmas Eve and has a gun in his mouth, until Santa Claus’ magic sack of toys literally falls into his lap. But don’t expect any whimsy from this story. Krampus has finally freed himself after being locked in a cave in West Virginia by Jolly Old Saint Nick for 500 years, with only his demonic slaves for company. And he is on a warpath that leads directly to the North Pole. (Well, actually Spain, but same difference.) However, the “Yule Lord”, as he calls himself, is always willing to take time out of his ‘Let’s Murder Santa Claus’ plan to party like it’s pre-Ragnarok. And our (very unlucky) hero finds himself at the epicenter of a blood feud between the last remaining scions of two warring tribes of Norse gods.
If all that seems pseudo-Tolkein-esque, trust me, it’s not. Brom deftly avoids the standard ten pages or more of exposition that covers all the royal families and their interactions for thousands of years, complete with exhaustive genealogies, that is abused by lazy fantasy writers who only ever churn out poor imitations of Lord of the Rings. Krampus is very much its own story, and any exposition is treated rather jokingly. At one point, when Krampus explains to Jesse just why he hates Santa Claus so darn much, Jesse falls asleep.
Details about the characters, many quite surprising, come gradually. The players in this war are very real people, with beliefs, desires, phobias, and regrets. Oh, so many regrets. Krampus, who looks like Satan, is a paradoxical being: malignant and terrifying, yet at the same time pitiful and sympathetic. His feud with Ol’ Kris Kringle himself is not as black and white as it would at first appear. The myth of Santa Claus is just that and underneath the gilded, sanitized version we were all exposed to as kids, there is a truth far darker than we could have ever imagined. But Brom did, and that’s why I love his sick, demented, and feverishly original mind.
Brom proves himself greatly adept in writing within different characters’ voices as his omniscient narrator moves from viewpoint to viewpoint, and the shifts never seems jarring or unnatural. It still amazes me that in a story with demons in it, the most terrifying monsters are completely human. And what of our down-on-his-luck hero? Well, Jesse is about to make a deal with the devil. And it is going to save his daughter’s life.
In the same vein as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman, except his biography of Duran Duran, Krampus is unabashedly a fantasy novel, but it’s a fantasy grounded in reality. It deals frankly with subjects like suicide, adultery, drug abuse, organized crime, domestic violence, poverty, the dehumanizing side effects of technology, the often violent struggle between different religions, and the endless misery spawned by a cycle of revenge. If all that darkness seems like every movie ever nominated for an Oscar, save Forrest Gump, don’t worry, Krampus is a manic, thoroughly entertaining book. And like Forrest Gump, it deals with the harsh realities of life in a manner that doesn’t get in the way of, you know, actually telling a decent story.
The darkness found in Krampus is not for shock value and doesn’t exploitation itself. It’s never made into a gimmick, nor is it shoehorned in. These horrible realities we usually try to sweep under the rug during the holiday season are treated with the gravity they deserve. But Krampus is not some soul-crushingly bleak tragedy. Hope persists in even the most dire, degrading circumstances, and in the end, compassion bleeds through the miasma of cruelty.
In case you couldn’t tell, I absolutely adore this book. It has everything I could ask for in a story: Norse mythology, badass Native Americans, giant wolves, Santa Claus being a polygamist, magical thievery, copious uses of the F-word, a female God, lethal mistletoe, traumatized children, and a demon wearing a panda. Really, the only complaint I have for Krampus is it doesn’t include nearly enough of Brom’s disgusting-yet-somehow-beautiful paintings I’ve come to expect from his previous books. But that really is a minor quibble, because the actual text stands well enough on its own.
Krampus the Yule Lord: 10/10.
Fun Fact: There is a parade held in Germany celebrating Krampus, and it is a terrifyingly fun ordeal. Check out this video!