World Fantasy Award-winner Robert Holdstock is best known for his mastery of the wildwood – as exemplified in the Ryhope Wood sequence: Mythago Wood and its follow-ups – and his extraordinary merging of Greek and Arthurian mythologies, in The Merlin Codex. But before he embarked upon those two award-winning series, he produced the Berserker trilogy, writing as Chris Carlsen.
Although these books are more visceral – even brutal, at times – it would be a mistake to view them as throw-away sword and sorcery. As the eminent critic John Clute notes in his introduction, the protagonists of the Berserker trilogy are ‘like the raw heroes out of the heart of Mythago Wood’.
The Berserker books lack the subtleties of Mythago Wood, but in a sense they supply a deep backstory for that tale, and for everything else that Holdstock would write. They are the bone shop. It is a thrill to encounter them properly at last.
When Odin’s curse fell upon him, Harald Swiftaxe, the young Norse warrior, lusty in love and battle, was fully human no longer. He was incensed with the animal rage of the god’s devotees, the Berserkers. The snarling ferocious savagery of the bear possessed him. Immune to fire and steel, frenzied by the smell of blood and the sight of torn human flesh, he was driven to the worst of human deeds . . . The stench of fear was meat and drink to him, and cowering women learned of his cruel, insatiable lust.
The bear screeched its ecstasy – yet at times the man dimly understood the horror. Could the demon god be killed, the spell lifted…? If there was a way, the price of failure would be high, greater than death itself . . .