THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS by K. W. Jeter (2011, Kindle Books)
After being a prolific horror writer in the 1980s’, K. W. Jeter turned his writing abilities to novelizations of popular TV series and movies. Although he did an occasional publication such as Noir, the intense output of his 80’s work seemed to wane. I suspect he had bills to pay and the novelizations helped.
Kingdom of Shadows is a new direction for Jeter. Although a horror novel, it takes place during WW2. Most of the novel is set in Germany, although some of it happens in Hollywood. The theme of exploited innocence, always an underlying current in his works, runs through out Kingdom. Another theme is that of the power of visual art to influence the way people think. The horror in this novel is subtle, although extreme acts of violence are everywhere in it.
The book begins in Berlin, 1936. Young Pavli Iosefini is working in his Uncle’s camera and photography shop. He’s an orphan, but his uncle had given him work out of a sense of duty. Pavli’s extended family are members of a religious sect only known as The Lazarenes. Initiated members of the faith are tattooed on their wrist, ankles and side to represent the stigmata of Christ. They’re also been marrying close enough for generations so that each of them have one eye blue and another brown. A great opening to this kindle book.
Pavli has a cousin whom he has only seen in pictures: Marte. She’s the product of a union between a Lazarene who left the faith (even paid to have his tattooes removed) and an outsider. She doesn’t have the contrasting eye color. She’s also one of the most beautiful women imaginable, with he face of an angel. Marte soon enters the picture as she finds herself shipped off to a Nazi Lebensborn home where’s she’s bred with an SS officer. Unfortunately for her, the baby has the Lazerene mixed eye color, anethma for the Nazi race purists. Marte’s baby is given to another mother and she’s kicked out of the home.
But all is not lost for Marte as she soon makes the acquaintance of the film director Ernst von Behrens who decides her profile is just what is needed for a film star. One who will grab the eye of Hitler’s minister for public enlightenment: Josef Goebbels. The novel really takes off at this point where Marte’s film career is mixed with Pavli’s life. Most of the Lazerenes’ find themselves imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
One of the novel’s strengths is that it depicts the horror of Nazism without focusing too much on the Nazi leaders. Goebbels is a major figure as one of Marte’s sponsors and lovers, but most of the action is shown through the eyes of average people. It all builds to a crescendo in the final part of the novel which takes place during the Russian assault on Berlin. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which dealt with the effects of the allied bombing from the receiving end. Pavli’s attempts to find Marte are right out of a medieval painting of hell.
There’s also a lengthy section where the film director is attempting to film a medieval epic during the bombing. It’s based off a German fairy tale about the Red Hunter, a skeletal figure who lays waste to the countryside. The director puzzles over the reason Goebbels allows him to film the epic, deciding it ties in with his lust for the apocalypse.
The Lazarenes seem to have been invented by Jeter. Wrist tattooing is predominant in the middle east, where indigenous Christians mark their children to protect them from kidnappers. The contrasting eye color is ultra rare among any group of people. They remind me of the gypsy tribes.
This is a intensely written novel about a horror tale which happens to take place within the fall of the Third Reich. I give credit for Jeter for doing his homework: he even references the historical epic Kolberg, where troops where diverted from the eastern front to protect the filming. It does have the same frustrating end of Dark Seeker, but the novel is worth reading just the same.