A 10-Out-Of-10 Horror Story: A Review of "The Kropfsberg Keep" by Ralph Adams Cram
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
You know what type of horror story I love most? A good haunted house tale. You know what type of horror story I love almost as much? A good ghost tale. Give me spooky season all day every day. Give me ghost stories to keep me up at night and question if I'm seeing things out of the corner of my eye.
Today, I bring you a horror story that ticks all the boxes on my good horror story list. Today, I bring you “The Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Cram. It has ghosts, it has misdirection, it has a haunted manor, it has massacres; it has it all.
Before I get to my review, a trigger warning is in order. One of the characters in this short story commits suicide, also this is a spoiler warning too I guess, so please continue at your own discretion.
Our tale begins with a group of people enjoying a night around a fire. A woman known as Fraulein E begins a story of two boys who studied painting under her uncle; their names are Otto von Kleist and Rupert.
The framing device of Fraulein E is completely unnecessary. In the collection that includes this story, there is a full page and a half of unnecessary backstory before the actual tale begins. There is nothing relevant in this framing device, and is the worst part of the story.
Back to the actual plot. Rupert is the main character in this story, if he was a real person in 2020 he would be a frat boy type; I just get that feeling from him. He and Otto make fun of a local innkeeper who tells them about a local haunted keep: the titular Kropfsberg Keep. Basically, Rupert tells the man that he’s crazy for believing in ghosts, he and Otto are going to spend the night in the keep for shits and giggles, and he believes that nothing is going to happen during their sleepover. The line in the sand has been drawn and shit is about to go down.
So who or what is supposedly haunting the keep, and why is this place said to be haunted? Great question. This backstory is perhaps the best part of the story.
Forty years before the events of our tale, there lived a man by the name of Count Albert. He was a horrible man with money and power. There is no explanation of why he did what he did before his death, but it’s implied that he was a psychopath in life. Probably killed some cats, probably treated his servants like shit, probably tortured people too if I’m being honest.
Anyway, one night he invited guests to a lavish, opulent, risqué- or at least I imagine it must have been risqué- event at the keep. That night, while all his guests were getting drunk and dancing the night away, he set fire to his home, and trapped all his party guests inside. The first two floors burned down while the third floor, with his personal study, remained intact. All the party guests perish in the fire, Count Albert does not. He instead dresses in a medieval knight’s armor that was one of his ancestors and takes his life by hanging in his private study.
The villagers don’t wish to touch the Count’s body after his death. While they locate and bury the remains of the party goers, the Count’s body remains in his study for 12 long years. During those 12 years he decomposes in his suit of armor, and many of the children in town venture to the keep to catch a glimpse of the Count’s body.
First of all, eww. Second of all, this is the most messed up part of this story. A lot of towns have the “haunted house” where children dare each other to venture into or visit or something to that extent. But venturing out to see a dead body as a dare is pretty extreme. It’s so messed up! This is the one part of the story I have a problem with; mainly because no one wants to offer even an ounce of respect to this corpse. I get that Count Albert was a horrible, horrible human being and should not be forgiven for what he did in life, but at least show some respect to the corpse and bury or cremate it.
Now that my tangent is over, back to our regularly scheduled program. Does anyone remember a few paragraphs ago when I said Otto and Rupert were going to spend a night in Count Albert’s haunted keep. That takes place 40 years after the Count’s mass murder and suicide. And remember how I said the Count’s body hung in his private study for 12 years? Yeah, well after 12 years of people daring each other to go see a rotting corpse, it disappears. Things have gotten even worse when it comes to this corpse. No one in the town admits to touching or moving the body, it straight up disappears one day and no one knows what happened to it. How can a corpse being missing for nearly 30 years!? That’s great, so freaking great.
Back to Rupert and Otto now. They don’t care that a murderer’s corpse went missing, and without a care in the world, they spend their time where this corpse remained for over a decade. For hours the pair spend their time drinking, eating, and playing chess. After midnight, Otto falls asleep and Rupert is left to experience a frightening night all alone.
Everything from here on out is phenomenal. The plot; ten-out-of-ten. The writing; ten-out-of-ten. The psychological horror; ten-out-of-ten.
Rupert is visited by the ghost of Count Albert, who is still dressed in the medieval armor he died in I may add. It’s taunt after taunt from the Count as he tries to get Rupert to kill himself, and Rupert is just trying to get the upper hand in the situation. Rupert is a confident guy, throughout the entirety of the encounter he believes that the Count isn’t real, that this could just be a prank, that this is just a dream or a drunken hallucination.
I love this part of the story. Like I said, it’s phenomenal. You have three possibilities of what’s going on in this instance, and solid arguments can be made for all three of these ideas.
Number one: take everything at face value. Count Albert’s ghost is truly there, and Rupert is scared to the point of possibly losing his mind. Rupert doesn’t believe in ghosts. Yet here is a ghost, taunting him to the point of insanity and/or death.
Number two: Rupert is going insane/having a hallucination. Count Albert isn’t there. Rupert is either freakishly drunk and is imagining things. Or Rupert is being affected by something in the keep to the point where he thinks he’s seeing and speaking with the dead. Think along the lines The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson where the main character isn’t sure if everything is in her head or is actually happening.
Number three: going back to the issues with Albert’s corpse, perhaps he didn’t die forty years ago. There are ways to fake a death via hanging, the Robert Downey Jr. film Sherlock Holmes showed how exactly one can do so. And Count Albert’s psychopathic tendencies can definitely lead readers to believe he would do something like faking his death. No one in town would be sad to see him go, and he could easily live like a recluse in a supposedly haunted house. If he supposedly died in a suit of armor, then no one would know for certain who or what was in the armor if no one took it down; especially if it mysteriously disappears. This is just an interesting thought, but it makes you think.
And I haven’t even talked about the best part of this book: the ending. If you want to keep the ending a surprise, then leave right now. I’ll see you next Wednesday when I talk about something else. It may be a listicle, it may be another review, it could be a movie review; I haven’t decided yet.
Now for those of you who have stayed and are ready to have the ending spoiled… let’s go!
Ralph Adams Cram wrote a great ending. While Rupert was making fun of the innkeeper at the start of the story, Cram makes note of Rupert telling the innkeeper both he and Otto will have revolvers for protection. Here we have another instance of drawing the line in the sand. The minute Rupert says he has everything handled because he has a gun, you know something is going to happen involving said gun.
Have you guessed what’s going to happen? It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen, but the story is so compelling that you don’t mind.
Rupert, believing that he’s shooting at the Count Albert, ghost or human is debatable, fires off one round but actuals shoots a sleeping Otto. Yeah, remember him? He’s out like a light on the floor, and tragically is shot in the neck by his friend.
I love this ending! I knew what was coming, but this short story is so well written that it’s still a chilling reveal. It makes you think was there a ghost? Was there anything in the room at all? Who can say.
I know I’ve spoiled the entirety of “The Kropfsberg Keep,” but you should still give this short story a read. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. Even though it’s only a few pages long, Cram manages to create a chilling world full of descriptions and misdirection. It is that type of story that makes you question if everything occurring is in the main character’s head or if everything is actually happening. Truly it’s a 10-out-of-10 story.