Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Tim Lebbon
Published by Leisure Horror
I only started reading Lebbon in the last few months, thanks to the good folks at Cemetery Dance I was able to get started with one of his novellas, but the man has made a massive impression on me in that short amount of time.
His latest book, Berserk, is at the same time a tale of monsters and loss, violence and caring, and easily one of the best novels Leisure's published to date.
The story starts with our main character, Tom, as he goes out for his Friday night tradition of having a few brews at the local pub before heading home for the weekend. While sitting by himself, getting his thoughts in order and winding down from the week, he hears two men at a nearby table mention a place called Porton Down, which just so happens to be a military training area where Tom’s son was killed ten years previous in what the military insists was an accident. Though he’s not able to pick up the entire conversation, what he hears is enough to make dredge up all the doubts and fears he’s had since his son died. He hears "They kept monsters".
That’s just the kind of brilliant phrase that probably popped into Tim’s mind and led him to write a story around it. Just think if you were in a quiet pub and you heard those words whispered by two men who looked afraid for their lives. Wouldn’t you be curious?
Tom is able to get enough information out of one of them to discover that what they buried ten years ago was not his son, but a coffin of rocks. The man leaves a map for Tom with the general location of the mass grave the military created at Porton Down to dispose of bodies that were involved in an incident they didn’t want anyone aware of. When Tom’s wife suggest the two of them go to Porton Down for the weekend of the tenth anniversary of their son’s death, just to try and come to terms with their loss more by facing it head-on, Tom sees the chance to finally find out what happened to his son.
What he locates in the mass grave, however, is not his son. He finds the skeletons of various service men, but no sign of his boy Steven. Below the bodies that all seemed to have died of gunshots or worse, he finds a group of skeletons chained together, all but one of which is missing its head. The one body with the head still intact is that of a young girl named Natasha who, despite being underground for ten years, isn’t quite dead. Using a form of mental telepathy, Natasha insists that Tom has to free her and get her somewhere safe because a man named Mister Wolf, who has been after her kind for over ten years, will find her and finish the job he started a decade earlier. She also tells him that his son may still be alive.
Of course, that’s what gets him moving, and pretty much that one hope serves as Tom’s motivation throughout he rest of the book, no matter what horrible things befall him, a lot of horrible things do happen. As he slowly learns the truth of what Natasha is, or at least what she believes the truth to be, Tom’s world crumbles around him as everything he once thought to be real is proven to be nothing but a big, comfortable lie. Now there’s a former military man after him who is more than willing to kill Tom to protect the rest of the world, the corpse of a little girl by his side, and not a single clue as to how it’s all going to end.
Essentially, Berserk is a chase story that never slows down from the moment Tom pulls Natasha out the ground to the final fiery showdown. Though Lebbon could’ve taken the easy route and made his characters cutout (though to be honest I’m not sure he even knows how to do that), he uses the parallel stories of Mister Wolf and Tom to focus on two men who couldn’t be more different; Tom has spent his entire life working behind a desk and the past ten years trying to rebuild his life after the death of his son, Wolf has lived his whole life in the military, with the last ten years spent trying to find the last of Natasha’s kind, the Berserkers, and his obsession has cost him almost everything in his life. These two stories make the overall arc of Berserk almost impossible to not identify with on some level, even if you’ve never been chased across England with a corpse by your side.
Lebbon also never lets you see which is the truth about Natasha; is she really just an innocent girl forced to do horrible things by the military, as she makes Tom believe, or an unstoppable monster with no regard for human life unless they suit her needs? This unknown device is a fantastic way to keep the tension on the cutting edge for the entire length of the book, and makes the book that much harder to put down.
I really can’t find anything negative to say about Berserk, except that I wish it were longer. It’s only served to make me more of a Lebbon devotee, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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