Berserk by Tim Lebbon (Leisure Fiction, 2006)
Berserk by Time Lebbon is the 2nd book I’ve read by the author. Some time ago I reviewed Naming of the Parts, his earlier novella about a zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Lebbon has achieved a measure of success over the past few years, winning all kinds of awards. I’ve come to view him as the pastoralist of contemporary horror fiction.
Berserk begins with a middle-aged British man named Tom Roberts grieving for his son Stephen. Stephen, the only child he and his wife Jo had, was killed ten years earlier in a training accident at a military base on the Salisbury Plain. The official story was an explosion and the families were sent closed caskets. But Tom has always suspected the government was covering something up. One night he’s drowning his grief at a local pub when he hears two ex-soldiers talk about “the monsters” being kept where Steven had been stationed. Tom later confronts one of the pair, who gives him a map with an “X” on it. Naturally, Tom decides to take a holiday with Jo and see what they can discover.
What Tom discovers is a mass grave. Sneaking behind the security perimeter of a military installation, he manages to uncover the bodies of an entire squad of soldiers who happen to still be wearing their dog tags. Steven’s body isn’t there, but he uncovers the bodies a civilian family: father, mother, son, and daughter. The only body belonging to the family not decapitated is a 10-year-old girl, who is bound in chains.
But when Tom tries to leave, the mummified body of the young girl moves slightly and begins to talk to him in his thoughts. She’s called Natasha and refers to Tom as “Daddy”. She wants him to take her away and promises to help him locate his son. Tom initially thinks he’s going crazy.
Meanwhile, one of the two former soldiers who Tom overheard discoveres the location of the mass grave has been leaked. He’s known as Cole and has sworn to hunt down every last one of Natasha’s kind. Cole’s armed, experienced with guns, and won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way. He’s seen what Natasha’s kind can do and has sworn to rid the earth of them. And he’s headed straight for Tom.
Natasha and her family are “berserkers”, a kind of predatory human. Somewhat like a werewolf, they can modify their physical bodies when on the kill. They are quick, have lighting reflexes and dodge bullets with ease. They also heal very quickly. The only material which can put them down quick is silver, although they are not immortal. The military was keeping them locked away for special missions. There’s a gruesome scene where Natasha lets Tom see memories of her family taking out an entire building of drug lords.
The action is linear. Most of the book is Tom trying to out-run the vengeful Cole while carrying Natasha’s slowly re-animating body. Cole made the mistake of not killing Natasha years ago and he’s determined to rectify his error. All of the action takes place in the countryside.
The major problem with the book is a lack of any sympathetic characters. Natasha and her kind don’t hesitate to kill people for fun. It’s what they do. Cole kills anyone who prevents him from going after the berserkers, justifying his actions as for the common good. And Tom…you want to sympathize with him, but it’s painfully obvious Natasha is using him from the beginning.
And you never get a good idea of what the berserkers are all about, other than killing humans. In the last chapter you find out where they really come from, but it’s almost a let-down. You never do find out if they’re supernatural or genetic mutations. A little expository would have helped.
But these complaints are what keep Berserk from being a great horror novel. It’s still a good read and worth the time if you can find a good copy.