Nazis, Roman emperors and the quest for a holy relic, Dejan Stojiljković’s novel Constantine’s Crossing has all the elements you could expect from a Dan Brown-wannabe. Throw in some vampires and any writer worth his salt might just hit the jackpot.
What this does not say is that, while Constantine’s Crossing is a pacey mish-mash of touchstones from the horror thriller genre, it is not just a bandwagon-jumper riding the vampire wave. This story, with one foot in fact and another in fantasy, has far darker tones than the current glut of teenage bloodlust re-treads.
Rather than revelling in blood and gore, Constantine’s Crossing tackles themes of individual responsibility in war, the root of human evil, and a people’s duty to resist occupation. As well as ancient legend, it confronts some more modern beliefs about how people reacted to occupation by the German army.
Another theme of this enjoyable romp of a read is the lasting impact of how past events can return to impact a land and its people, drawing parallels between times across history.
At the heart of this book, what carries the reader along and makes it such a page-tuner is that Stojiljković can tell a great story. He writes in a clear tone without the clutter of cumbersome language or the forced effect of shock and awe prose.
Let’s put one thing straight, though: this Serbian author and comic book writer style is far from dreary. His love of graphic novels and cartoons has cultivated a vivid and highly visual narrative style, painting pictures in the mind’s eye that linger long after.
These tricks of the trade are perfect for a good horror story and must have contributed to Constantine’s Crossing being named as the most widely read book in Serbia’s public libraries in 2010.
As well as this obvious shelf-appeal, Stojiljković has received the Milos Crnjanski Award for Constantine’s Crossing and the novel has been translated into five languages, testifying to the international appeal of Stojiljković as a old-fashioned storyteller.
Dejan Stojiljković was born in Niš in 1976. Before Constantine’s Crossing, he wrote two collections of fiction: The Left Side of the Road (2007) and Low Life (2008), inspired by rock and roll myths. Constantine’s Crossing is published in English by Geopoetika.
The majority of this novel takes place over a three day period in June 1944. The location is the Serbian town of Niš, under the yoke of German occupation and Chetnik/Partisan fighting.
Stojiljković has clearly done his research and the book is peppered with historical morsels about Nazi fascination with the occult, the German occupation of Serbia, and the bloody confrontation between the Chetniks and Partisans. The Allied bombing raids on Serbia in the later days of World War II also come in for some critical targeting.
The story starts with a legend that says the nails used to crucify Jesus Christ were hustled away after his resurrection. One was inserted into a crown, another used to top a staff, while the third was melted into the blade of a sword. The legend claims that whoever is in the possession of these three items could rule the world.
According to further folklore, this third relic, the holy sword, was secreted among a hoard of arms in Niš, the birthplace of Emperor Constantine the Great.
Constantine was just one of around twenty Roman emperors who are believed to have been born in the territory of modern Serbia. While Constantine’s life was influential, including his conversion to Christianity, there is no memorial to him in Serbia and his Imperial Palace is believed to remain buried beneath the city of Niš. For Stojiljković, this left plenty of scope to explore the mystery surrounding the Emperor.
Apparently, Hitler and his Nazi cronies fell for this myth and mystery hook, line and sinker. Himmler’s controversial Ahnenerbe research department was specifically tasked with pursuing the more esoteric beliefs to back up many of the Third Reich’s actions with the science of myth and legend. Records show the Nazis had their eye on Serbia, as a source of Aryan superiority and resting place of various historical artefacts – including the holy sword.
That is the historical basis of the story that unravels a thrilling tale of horror and intrigue as the Nazi’s search for the sword of the Emperor at the end of the Second World War. While the quest might be based on real events, the more colourful parts of the story has been wrapped up in a fictional SS officer sent to Niš to uncover the sacred treasure of Constantine the Great from the catacombs and caves beneath the city.
Stojiljković says he was motivated to write this book to shake the view that all Germans in the Second World War were Nazis. To aid him there, Stojiljković has created two faces of Germany: the fanatical SS Officer Heinrich Kahn, and Bavarian nobleman and head of the occupying force Otto von Fehn.
From the mundane matter of not enough rations for too many bored troops, to locals wrapped up in a brutal civil war, Otto von Fehn has enough on his plate already. To add to his woes, Hitler sends Kahn to Niš to search the excavations of an ancient Roman settlement for the sword of Constantine (apparently, Hitler already has the other two but still needs the sword to complete his master plan).
The story also portrays two sides of Serbia at that time: the unrefined Partisan Voja Drainac on the one hand, and prominent townsman Krsman Teofilović on the other. Furthering the theme of the civil war, we see the mysterious Chetnik major Nemanja Lukić return to Niš on special assignment. As ever, things are not as they seem and the more we see of Lukić, the less is clear about his real intentions in the town and the reason for his fearlessness.
Matters in the town (and the story) quickly come to a head when the laid back attitude is upturned by a series of horrific events that shake the lives of everyone. A monstrous killer is on the loose, slaughtering German soldiers and locals alike. Under the cover of darkness a strange being seems to rise from the tunnels and caverns of Niš to wreak havoc. As the players move closer to the beast, the true horror of its nature is revealed.
Constantine’s Crossing kept me gripped from the fact-based early chapters through twists and turns that lead to the place of all good horror stories. Unusually though, this one contained themes and messages to think about beyond the page.