His website has the full picture from the cover and it looks even more fantastic without the words across the top.
The premise of the book is that Krampus has spent centuries imprisoned by an imposter, Santa Claus, and now he plans to kill Santa and take back Yuletide. As you might imagine from the cover, this is not a kid’s Christmas story. It has some violence and starts out more bleak than most stories I read — in fact, I put it aside and wasn’t going to read it but thankfully gave it another chance. Now I think I’ll reread it every December.
From the book description:
One Christmas Eve in a small hollow in Boone County, West Virginia, struggling songwriter Jesse Walker witnesses a strange spectacle: seven devilish figures chasing a man in a red suit toward a sleigh and eight reindeer. When the reindeer leap skyward taking the sleigh, devil men, and Santa into the clouds, screams follow. Moments later, a large sack plummets earthward, a magical sack that will thrust the down-on-his luck singer into the clutches of the terrifying Yule Lord, Krampus. But the lines between good and evil become blurred as Jesse’s new master reveals many dark secrets about the cherry-cheeked Santa Claus, and how half a millennium ago, the jolly old saint imprisoned Krampus and usurped his magic.
Now Santa’s time is running short, for the Yule Lord is determined to have his retribution and reclaim Yuletide. If Jesse can survive this ancient feud, he might have the chance to redeem himself to his family, to save his own broken dreams…and help bring the magic of Yule to the impoverished folk of Boone County.
The book is well-paced, intertwining the Santa/Krampus feud with Jesse’s equally bloody feud with the corrupt police chief who has hooked up with Jesse’s estranged wife. A few times I thought, “Aha! I know how the author is going to get them out of this situation!” and to my delight, I was wrong. I love a book I can’t predict. Even better, he navigated the sections of character realizations about our world well, without it reading in that clunky “now the author will tell you his opinions” way that unfortunately happens in many books. Those parts were easily my favorite.
I’ll admit, I fell in love with Krampus over the course of this book. From page 306:
“I am Krampus, the Yule Lord,” he boomed. “I come to celebrate the splendors of life and seek worthy souls to join me. People who wish to make merry…to shout, dance, love, brawl, and sing. Souls willing to turn their backs on the angels and share in a little debauchery. To be alive now, this very night. To shake their fist in the face of death, knowing whatever ills tomorrow may harbor nothing can steal this moment if you live it with all your vigor. What say you? Will you drink with me this night and chase the Draugr from the shadows? Will you sing with me to Mother Earth, to all the ghosts of Asgard? Will you herald in Yuletide with me?”
So who is this Krampus, whom I’d only heard about from this 2010 Cracked article?
The author explains in the Afterword:
Several years ago my wife, Laurie (who is infinitely hipper than I), turned me on to a devil that prances about at Christmas, whipping naughty children with a birch branch. I was immediately smitten with the character. “Stuffs them into a sack and beats them bloody, you say? Tosses the really bad ones into the river? Takes some home to devour? Please…tell me more!”
He goes on to talk about his research for the book. Sections like this can be boring, but in this book it was not, especially if (like me) you’ve always enjoyed learning about various Christmas customs as well as folklore and mythology.
Krampus has an entourage called the Belsnickels, which, as I was reading, I assumed was a word the author made up. Meanwhile, I was working on a family history project and happened to have some books out of the library about West Virginia folklore. My dad’s ancestors were German Palatines who immigrated and became Pennsylvania Dutch Lutherans. Most of them stayed in Pennsylvania, but one branch of the family (ours) moved to West Virginia sometime before 1815 and lived there until my Dad moved to Ohio in 1983. I was flipping through Witches Ghosts and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians by Patrick W. Gainer, and my eye caught the word “Belsnickling” on page 28:
Christmas was celebrated by “Belsnickling,” a custom unknown in other parts of the state. This custom was brought into that part of the state by German people from Pennsylvania in the early part of the eighteenth century. The celebration started on Christmas eve, when a small group disguised in costumes and masks started out under the leadership of “Old Belsnickle” to visit the homes in the community. Each home had a candle in the window to guide the visitors.
Old Belsnickle would knock on the door, and the voice of the head of the family would ask from within, “Who’s there?”
The voice inside the house would then invite, “Old Belsnickle, come in.”
The door was then opened and all the visitors entered and lined up to be inspected by the members of the family, who tried to identify each visitor. Anyone who was correctly identified had to do a “trick,” which meant a performance of some kind, such as a song, dance, or some clever act. If the persons in the company could not be identified, the whole group was treated to good things to eat and drink. Of course they were always treated, no matter what happened. As the group moved from one home to another, they would be joined by members of the last family visited, so that the group became larger as they moved from home to home.
This Christmas celebration was later adapted to the Halloween celebration in Jefferson County, West Virginia, and from there it quickly spread over the entire country. It was caled “Trick or Treat,” and still goes by that name. However, the original meaning of the word trick as some kind of performance soon changed to mean some kind of mischievous act.
I asked my parents if they’d ever heard of Belsnickling, and sadly they had not.
I looked it up online and found this picture from 1910:
I emailed my mom this blog post I found about folk traditions and she said she was familiar with the song.
Christmas is coming; geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, ha’ penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you!
I sent her this:
She said it was not the tune she knew. I found this one:
She said it was the one. She’d known it for years but never knew its roots.
How often does a novel you’re reading dovetail with a family history project you’re researching and turn you on to an entirely new area of myth and folklore? The novel is enjoyable either way, but if you’re a fan of Norse mythology or ancient Pagan traditions or Yule or Christmas folklore, it will be enhanced.
I hope they turn the novel into a film. It deserves to become a new tradition.