Krampus by Brom celebrates the mythology and folklore surrounding the pagan figure of Krampus, the Yule Lord, in a novel that is part fantasy, part horror, and part holiday treat. I went into this one with neither the highest expectations nor the foggiest idea what direction the story might take. Though the beginning is a tad shaky, as we are introduced to the main character Jesse, once the disparate pieces start falling into place I was pleasantly surprised to find a wide array of characters with rich personalities and motives and a story that portrays Krampus as everything one would expect: he is both good and terrible, with qualities that make him, in many cases, as human as you or I.
Though the legend of Krampus cuts across different cultures and takes many forms as a result, Brom selects a decidedly Norse leaning interpretation of the horned creature. Those familiar with Norse mythology will encounter many familiar personas (some directly and others by reference): there’s Odin, Loki, Hel, Geri, Freki, Huginn, Muninn, and others. Krampus’s acolytes are referred to as Belsnickels, which is not Norse in origin but German, brought over by early immigrants to America from that country. Then there’s the Christian influence, the followers of which instantly see Krampus as none other than Satan himself. Krampus is a seven foot tall demon with curved horns sprouting from his head, so can’t really blame them.
The story of Krampus is this: Santa Claus imprisoned Krampus hundreds of years ago and, as a result, Yule and its traditions have been forgotten. Krampus himself is wasted away, a sad shadow of his former self. But he still yearns to return to the world to spread his own particular form of holiday cheer. His Belsnickels, or servants, carry out his will, slowly setting the stage for the Yule Lord’s escape and the fruition of Krampus’s dream: to kill Santa Claus and to then remind the world that Krampus was here first.
While there are elements of horror in Krampus, this is not solely a horror novel. There are some gruesome deaths, but there are also many fantastical elements, such as Santa’s flying sled, reindeer, and his sack, which he stole from Krampus long ago and which can produce nearly anything one desires as long as the user is of Loki’s bloodline.
What struck me the most about Krampus is the characters. Jesse is a loser looking for his way in life while trying to win back his estranged wife and daughter (very cliché, I know, but he kind of grows on you). Some of the baddies, including the General and Chief Dillard, are mostly just bad with no motive other than that. But the Belsnickels and Krampus himself felt very real to me. Each Belsnickel was “recruited” at different times and under different circumstances. One is near a hundred years old (Belsnickels do not age since they have the blood of Krampus flowing through their veins) and another, Isabel, a girl of about twenty, has been that age for going on forty years. Wipi, Nipi, and Makwa want nothing more than to serve their lord. Vernon would prefer the Yule Lord keel over and die; he does little to hide these feelings, too, which presented some laugh out loud moments for me. Isabel, Krampus’s “little lion,” is the little sister archetype. She left behind a newborn child in her previous life and she longs to return to that life to undo some mistakes she made, but she’s also terrified of facing those failures and of being rejected by her now grown child. Even Krampus, who is both good and terrible, has his own inner struggles as he tries to cope with the fact that the world has moved on without him. It’s not until the end that Krampus rediscovers himself entirely:
Jesse had never seen this side of the Yule Lord, and it occurred to him that he was seeing the real Krampus, the Krampus of ancient times, the great and wild Yule spirit that galvanized mankind to brave the darkest primeval nights, kindled their will to survive the trials of the harshest winters. He could almost see the horned beast dancing this very jig within the communal houses of primitive man. Jesse saw the way the people fed on Krampus’s spirit, and how, in turn, Krampus fed on theirs. And understood now just why those shoes, with their small tribute of candies, meant so much to the Yule Lord. That what Krampus needed more than anything was a flock to shepherd, to protect and inspire.
Krampus is as much a story about the traditions of Christmas and Yule as it is a tale of discovery. Krampus steals the show in many scenes, but the supporting characters have stories of their own that I found intriguing and fun to follow along. Krampus is an alternate classic for the holidays which I could see myself reading again and again.