During the course of my reading career, I’ve read my share of horror stories. Even before I started high school, I discovered the frightful words of the ultimate master, Edgar Alan Poe. He terrified me with his black cat and his supernatural creatures, especially when the undead Madeline stood outside her living brother’s door and knocked in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Right along with the protagonist of the “Telltale Heart,” I could hear that heart beating under the floorboard. Later on, Stephen King petrified me with his vampires under the house in Salem’s Lot and Christine, the monster car. Cujo, his mad dog, was just macabre icing on the ghastly cake. Many nights John Saul and Dean Koontz have left me quaking in my bed, burrowed deep under the covers and wondering what if . . .
These masters of the horror novel thrill us readers; we expect fear to come with every page. That’s why we read these novels. Something in many of us demands the catharsis of being frightened nearly senseless so long as we know that we’ll be safe once the book is finished. However, back in early December I finished Winter of the World by Ken Follett and I’m still having nightmares. No black cats jumped out at me from behind decrepit walls. No mad dogs slavered or waited in the shadows to pounce on me as I got out of my car with the groceries. No zombie or vampire awaited me. Nonetheless, this book scared me as none has since I read Sophie’s Choice. Follett’s monsters are human and all the more frightening because they transform into the worst of monsters: those who prey on other humans.
Winter of the World is the second in the Century Trilogy, the third of which has not yet been published. The first novel, The Fall of Giants, and Winter of the World deal with five interrelated families--American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh. The reader sees these characters deal with social, political, and economic turmoil from the beginning of the Third Reich up to the point when the atomic bombs end the war and begin the Cold War. The novel made me think. That in itself is the mark of a good book. It made me think.
Over the years I’ve read many acclaimed novels about the Holocaust and WWII. This novel barely mentions the Holocaust, but it’s always there like a ghost in the background. We readers see German citizens beaten to death by their own government’s representatives. Follett graphically places us in field hospitals with the wounded soldiers and the desperate doctors trying to save them. We watch as government facilities euthanize mentally and physically handicapped children and we feel the pain of their loved ones. We observe inefficient commanders carelessly placing their men in harm’s way. One thing in this book that truly upset me was the suffering of the German people themselves. So many times I’ve thought about the ordinary German people, the everyday man on the street trying to make a living for his family. I wonder how many of them chose their government and how many just fell into it. Could they really have done anything to stop all the atrocities? As they watched power change fellow citizens into monsters, could they have done anything?
Most of all, the book scares me still and appears in my nightmares because I can see too many parallels between Nazi Germany and our present day United States. Are we moving in the direction of a government with too much power, one that cares little for the opinions of its citizens? Consider issues like abortion and gun control. Where are we going? Now is the time to act. Someday may be too late.
In the meantime, thank you, Ken Follett, for a magnificent reading experience. I’m eagerly awaiting number three.