The genre-mixing of the Second World War with the realm of the mystical and supernatural has always had me in its thrall, ever since I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc as a teenage boy. Seldom tried and even less often successfully so, it has remained a niche genre with limited overall commercial appeal outside two of the Indiana Jones movies. The first Hellboy movie incorporated some of the occult links to the Third Reich and, in my opinion, would have been better all around had it concentrated on such a setting. Not that a Rasputin eldritch abomination wasn't nice, too, don't get me wrong... The last good installment of a WW2/Supernatural mix I know of was the 2008 horror movie Outpost (the less said about the sequel the better). And as far as books go: in case they exist they've done their very best to avoid my attention.
That is until now.
Richard Rhys Jones' novel took me by complete surprise.
The tide of war has turned against the once unstoppable German armies, and Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, is approached by a Romanian count claiming to be part of the ethnic German minority of the Siebenbürger Sachsen who promises him an army of soldiers able to fight during the night. Enamored by the occult and by the obvious advantages of such a deal he sends newly promoted Eastern Front veteran Markus von Struck and a select band of trusted Waffen-SS soldiers into Romania to escort his envoy Dr. Rasch to finalize the deal.
At the same time the British are approached by the same count and decide to send Major James Smith onto a commando operation, dropping him via parachute into the Carparthians.
What starts ordinary enough for the peak of WW2 soon branches out into the fields of legend, religious myths reaching back four thousand years and horror. The lines between ally and enemy begin to blurr, and soon a motley crew of the most unlikely heroes are all that stand between survival and an all-consuming darkness.
Jones' human characters, even the secondary ones, are all well-rounded, three dimensional people with strengths and weaknesses and they, even more so than the extremely well-paced story, are what carries the novel to its action-packed climax. This is even more stunning since a large part of the protagonists we follow are German Waffen-SS soldiers, a group not commonly attributed with positive traits. But over the course of the narrative Jones manages to turn them into layered, likeable individuals, and while they share the limelight with a handful of other characters like a pair of Jewish KZ inmates who turn into unlikely - and ultimately really satisfying - heroes, they are the true protagonists of The Division of the Damned.
What's at stake and who are the heroes? Well this quote narrows it down more succinctly than I ever could:
"Who'd have thought it would come to this?" Michael asked nobody in particular.
"What?" Rohleder asked without looking up from scrubbing his barrel. "That the final fight for mankind would be fought by a couple of modern-day knights, German SS, an Englishman, a Communist, a Jewish woman and a Jewish werewolf?"
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is The Division of the Damned in all its glory - and it is a glorious read indeed - condensed into half a dozen sentences. If you haven't figured it out by now: I'm totally enamored by this book. If you can even remotely get into the WW2/Horror combination this is a read you must not pass by. I highly recommend you purchase a copy for yourself, and I for my part welcome a new author I'll definitely keep an eye on in the future: Richard Rhys Jones.
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Sebastian P. Breit is the author of the alternate history novel Wolf Hunt. You can find news, reviews, and commentary on all matters regarding WW2 on his blog, The War Blog, and follow his writing progress on his personal website.