LBC White Swan
- Venue: White Swan Leeds
- Date: Sunday 14th of July 2019
- Time: 6:00pm
- Address: Swan Street, Leeds
Discussing: The Kingdom of Shadows
Adapted from GoodReads:
K. W. Jeter, is an American science fiction and horror author known for his literary writing style, dark themes, and paranoid, unsympathetic characters. He is credited with the coining of the term ‘steampunk’. He has written novels set in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, and has written three sequels to Blade Runner.
In the sinister and glamorous world of the film industry in the Third Reich and in Hollywood, a young actress struggles not just to survive, but to unravel her own mysterious heritage. As war begins, dark conspiracies tighten around her; to escape them will require a journey through the apocalyptic landscape of Berlin’s last days…
A friend of mine told me recently about a film review for Meet the Spartans*, which declared that the film was so terrible that capital punishment – the death penalty – could be replaced by mandatory viewings. To be clear, that repeated viewings of that film, would preform the same function or punishment…as death.
To my mind, replacing the death penalty with readings of this book would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
There’s a reason why the blurb is so short. Revealing any *actual* details of the plot would be hugely off-putting and possibly offensive to many.
Ostensibly an exploration of the power of story telling; K.W. Jeter attempts to compare and contrast propaganda in Nazi-era Germany – as dictated and directed by Josef Goebbels – with the glossier but no less exploitative stories from Hollywood.
On top of that, there’s a Christian sect known as the Lazarenes’ – easily identified by their shared heterochromia trait (different coloured eyes – likely a product of inbreeding). The Lazarenes have been granted holy secret knowledge from Christ, not only about how to live forever, but also how to use their bodies to tell shadow stories. This knowledge is passed on from generation to generation once children reach their adolescence. Christian sect…got that?
The final thread involves two young Germans, growing up in chaos. Pavli is a Lazarene – a teenager with whom the secrets of his faith are not shared; his communities attempt to protect him from the Nazis. As a young boy, he worked for his uncle in a camera shop and while there he fell madly in love with a photo of his cousin – Marte – a photo that he carries with him throughout the entire book.
Marte is half Lazarene – however, she does not have different coloured eyes – in fact she is regarded as the Aryan ideal – blond hair and blue eyes. This was a deliberate attempt at assimilation on the behalf on her father, who predicted …I dunno…the rise of fascism and the extermination on a grotesque scale of those who were regarded as impure by said nazi fascists. As one does. He has rejected his roots and has thrown in his lot with the Nazi’s.
He sends Marte to become one of the ‘fountains of life’ – to produce a ‘racially pure’ child to an SS officer. Marte – we are told repeatedly, by every character, multiple times, including Marte herself – is very beautiful. Spectacularly beautiful. And in that very specific way that is only enhanced by a deep and abiding sorrow.
Naturally, she is picked by the ‘best’ of the SS officers, and successfully produces a child for the state, which really irks a true believer and utter cow-bag rival. However, her child has the Lazarene eye trait and is immediately deemed impure and therefore…handed over to the cow-bag rival. Not killed. Oh no. Handed over to a zealot. This makes no sense whatsoever, except in an obvious ‘this will be revisited later in the book’ sort of way.
(SIDE NOTE – the Lebensborn initiative – to have children for ‘Hitler’ was a real program and an estimated 20 000 children were born during the 12 years of the Third Reich)
On the other hand, this does make Marte sad. And therefore more beautiful. So beautiful in fact that a gay film director (his homosexuality is literally never referenced again across the book. For me it was a pointless gesture, however, it was noted by another that by including this reference, we are at least led to believe that Berlin prior to the Nazi’s was quite a different place than afterwards) takes her on as his muse. Marte becomes a film star…and captures the eye of Josef Goebbels. She also develops a tendency to float alongside herself during intercourse, in part perhaps a link to her Lazarene origins, but more likely a result of extreme detachment due to constant abuse. While floating along herself, she frequently comments on her own beauty.
Oh yes, Goebbels is a romantic lead in this…story. I mean, here’s a historical character, who was known for his preference for brunettes – so much so that it was noted at the time. Here falling over himself to impress this typical Aryan beauty. It’s that level of attention to detail that makes this book truly eye rolling.
While Marte gets whisked off to Hollywood for a brief chapter or two that adds practically nothing to the tale, Pavli and his entire Lazarene community are taken to a concentration camp. There, they are experimented and tortured down to the last soul in an attempt to wrest their holy secrets from them. Pavli – who doesn’t have the tattoos and knowledge – is forced (well, volunteers, but it’s a concentration camp – hard to blame him) to work the camera during the torture. He often occasionally gets drunk with the Doctor who is obsessed with the Lazarenes and may have inadvertently confirmed that his sect do indeed have mystical gifts. As a result, Pavli basically witnesses his entire community die from vivisection. He gets to handle the remains.
The Lazarenes’ are Christians, right – got that? Not Jewish. Christian. And that’s important because even the author realised how deeply horrifying and offensive his fiction is. Because – fundamentally – this group *do* have mystical secrets that they are keeping from the world and specifically the occult-obsessed fuhrer…which – whether intentional or not – creates this toxic and awful impression that Doctor ‘makes Mangela look like a rational softie’ has a point in his obsession and subsequent vivisection. This literally makes me ill to my stomach.
More and more horrendous things happen and – to be honest, I’m only really at the half way point of the book but it’s stomach churning so I will speed up a bit.
Suffice to say, Marte continues to get sadder and sadder, which naturally results in her becoming more and more beautiful – because that’s how that works. She returns from Hollywood and to Goebbels and that also makes her sad. So by now, her beauty is practically unspeakable. But she and everyone else keeps mentioning it.
By this point, Pavli has seen his entire community killed and this is where things get really weird. The skin remains of his vivisected brother(!) teaches Pavli the secrets of the sect, which allows Pavli to escape to the forest where he uses his magical powers to kill the evil evil doctor, kinda. His brothers spirit keeps him company for a while, but Pavli has more important tasks in mind – namely, he’s heading off to find Marte…because he remains madly in love with her…photo.
In a wholly unbelievable way, the two cousins are reunited. Marte is determined to find her son – even though the only person who knows where he is, is dead, due to the Russian assault on Berlin. Oh and by now, her eyes had changed colour – her lineage clear to see. Pavli pollutes his entire communities historical knowledge and legacy to try and communicate with the deceased nazi, who fails to disclose anything useful at all.
Thankfully – and just in the nick of time – the cow-bag reappears…but Marte’s child is dead as of about ten minutes previously. Marte is devastated. And this makes her – you guessed it – hideous…no wait, it makes her more beautiful. She decides to finish her film, all about some incredibly relevant German Red Hunter myth story in a very dramatic fashion…and then dies.
The Hollywood director, the German director and Pavli are all left…sad…but not more beautiful…which is strange…
Forget about any philosophical discussion of our bodies being canvasses; or of the Hollywood ideal being parallel to the Nazi propaganda machine; or the Kingdom of Shadows – the Schattenreich – the worlds of light and shade on our cinema screens; or the degradation of the soul by the screen or the camera – this book at its core is body horror. This is not a cinema epic writ large. It’s a glorification of cruelty and of abuse that diminished this reader.
For the first time across a decade of book clubs, I refused to score this book.
NOTE – a new clubber who read a different book by K.W. Jeter scored it 3/10 and Liam who hadn’t read the book but immensely enjoyed the discussion scored the night 10/10.
*It might have been a different film
It’s been about three years since I regularly reviewed any books for this blog 😦 – life just hasn’t been conducive for a creative flow, as it were. However, this book – THIS BOOK – has inspired me to pick up the ‘auld’ parchment and quill. I’ve never felt so strongly about a book club book before.