Berserker: Green Hell
I’m once again indebted to the Books of Horror group on Facebook, one of the largest gatherings of Horror fans, reviewers and authors; in a thread I created in the group a few weeks ago, asking for suggestions for new horror books from self-published, I received a large number of suggestions from the members there which I’m still working through. I think a number of my reviews for the rest of the year are going to come from titles found in that thread; and the first one to go from suggestion to review is Lee Franklin’s Berserker: Green Hell which is shortly due to be relaunched by the author at the beginning of August with a brand-new piece of cover art. A couple of things about Franklin’s debut novel caught my eye and attracted my interest: firstly there was of course that fantastic cover from illustrator Francois Vaillancourt, with its gripping blend of jungle vegetation in the background, and sinister, hunched and red-eyed soldier partially-concealed in the shadows, staring right at the reader. It’s an incredibly evocative piece that really sets the mood for the whole novel, and it also features the second thing that caught my eye – the quote from Lee Murray, one of my favourite horror writers, and author of the fantastic Taine McKenna novels from Severed Press as well as many other stories. Murray is a fantastic writer, and I knew that if she had blurbed this novel, then that was practically a clad-iron guarantee that I was going to enjoy it. Thirdly, and by far the most intriguing element for me, was that although this was a horror novel set in the Vietnam War, the focus for once was not on the US military. The protagonist is in fact Lance Corporal Terence ‘Pinny’ Pinfold of the Australian Army, just one of the approximately 52,000 Australian servicemen who served alongside US forces during that brutal and controversial conflict. The Australian Army’s involvement in Vietnam is still a relatively little-known fact despite its length of time in the country and the number of casualties it suffered; and as such this felt like an original and thoroughly under-explored take on an otherwise stale conflict used repeatedly in the Horror genre. Taking all of these elements together – cover art, quote and original protagonist – led me to conclude that this was a novel I wanted to dive into as soon as possible, and I distinctly looked forward to seeing what Lee Franklin had in store for me.
Franklin’s service in the Australian Army immediately makes itself clear in the opening lines of the novel, giving her prose a certain vividness that I’ve found in other veterans-turned-authors such as Weston Ochse. We’re immediately transported to a lush, verdant and utterly lethal and hellish location, with muddy cesspools, infernal heat and torrential rain that combine to turn ordinary men into burnt-out shells with trembling fingers and bitter personalities. Such is the case for Pinny – a man who signed up for a tour in Vietnam to impress his fiancée’s family, and then a second to escape the reality of his ex-fiancee’s belly swell with another man’s child. As Franklin so vividly puts it, mere sentences into the novel, “Bullet’s don’t give a shit what colour skin you got, and for all its sins the military doesn’t give a fuck either; you’re just a number they will chew up and spit out regardless”. I genuinely can’t remember the last time that I was drawn into a story so quickly and thoroughly, and it’s a testament to Franklin’s skill as a writer that by the second page of the novel I could readily visualise the evergreen hell that Pinny was serving in – and suffering through. Pinny is a member of The Reapers, a unit that lands in the aftermath of a battle and picks up dog tags, identifies bodies that can be labelled as Killed in Action (or their absence leading to the even more ominous Missing In Action) and also looks for evidence of any war crimes in the vicinity. Landing at the site of a recent firefight, Pinny and his comrades notice strange, misshapen footprints in the mud, and Vietnamese civilians brutally butchered in ways that seem completely at odds with even the worst wartime committed by US forces or the Vietcong. Suddenly ambushed by strangely resilient, hulking Vietcong fighters, then hit by a misdirected napalm strike, and with their air support shot down, Pinny and the surviving Australians are forced to trek through the unyielding and hostile jungle towards safety. But that safety is illusory, as they soon discover that they are being tracked by strange creatures that leave huge footprints with strange claw marks; and when one of the few surviving members of the squad is dragged into the jungle, Pinny finds himself thrown into an utterly confusing and increasingly terrifying situation involving an underground base, bizarre scientific experiments that rapidly devolve into outright torture, and the revelation that the base also contains strange and terrifying inhuman creatures.
At no point does the narrative in Berserker: Green Hell ever let up, not even for a brief moment, and the result is a fast-paced, intense and incredibly atmospheric slice of military horror that throws gut punch after gut punch at you until you’re practically gasping for breath, just like poor Pinny and his comrades. Franklin does a superb job of inducing the surreal nature of the experiments and the resulting body horror they unleash on the surviving Australian soldiers, and I was genuinely impressed by how smoothly she pivots between different subgenres, often on the same page or even paragraph: everything from the quiet, psychological horror Pinny experiences inside his head as a result of failing his mates and being unable to save them from their captors, to the body horror of the horrific changes that their bodies undergo, and even a few moments of extreme horror as the narrative opens up and the real reason for the experiments and torture are revealed to both Pinny and the readers. I also enjoyed how Franklin seemed to use her own experience in the Australian Army to boost the novel with authentic details that seeded the unsettling atmosphere running through the narrative. She doesn’t pull any punches portraying the inherent, baked-in racism and xenophobia found in the Australian Army – and the US Army – during the period, with Pinny both experiencing it thanks to his Aborigine heritage, and helplessly witnessing it being inflicted on African-American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians in turn. I was also impressed by the number of tropes that Franklin either subverted or turned on their head: to take just one example, she graphically demonstrates that being clubbed in the head with the stock of a rifle (a common trope found across many genres) won’t just result in someone waking up with a slight headache, but instead result in very obvious and serious, life-changing injuries. There’s a great deal more I’d like to say – especially about the revelatory and disquieting events of the last third of the novel, as mutated, abnormal and horrifying creatures are revealed, and the experiments on Pinny and his comrades reach their peak, but to do so would be to spoil an amazing experience that needs to be read without interference.
Berserker: Green Hell is a hugely impressive achievement by Lee Franklin, an intense, graphic and often deeply discomforting piece of Military Horror that deserves to stand alongside the best in the sub-genre, such as Weston Ochse’s Burning Sky. Not only does Franklin deliver a series of intense and atmospheric action sequences against foes both human and inhuman, and throw us into some stomach-churning sequences of human experimentation and torture, she also openly and honestly demonstrates the entirely human horrors to be found as a young Australian serviceman during that conflict: from the casual racism experienced from both your own comrades and your alleged allies, to an open and honest portrayal of the mental costs experienced as members of a forgotten and unappreciated forces fighting in that conflict. It’s all wrapped up in one of the most engaging and authentic Vietnam War narratives I’ve come across since reading non-fiction classics like Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk. Berserker: Green Hell is one of the best Military Horror novels I’ve ever read, and deserves to be read and re-read by fans of the genre; it’s also absolutely begging for a sequel, and I can only hope that with its re-release we’ll be seeing more of Pinny and further explore the fascinating world-building Franklin started in the novel.