‘Deathlands’ is yet another series that has periodically slipped through my hands over the years. The covers were always inviting, promising an entertaining trip through post-nuke America. For whatever reason, I just never bothered purchasing or reading any of them. Now, as I get further and further through westerns, crime and apocalyptic styled yarns (and yawns), I’m revisiting the books that just never made the cut initially. Thus ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, the first book of the series and my first taste of this long-running, highly recommended series.
The series was introduced in January, 1986 by publishing giant Gold Eagle. It has run for 130 books as well as an ill-conceived SyFy film. The concept was created by U.K. author Christopher Lowder, a talent that contributed to science fiction and adventure stories for the likes of ‘The House of Hammer’, ‘2000 A.D.’ and ‘Thunder and Lion’. Lowder worked on the series’ first entry, ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, but had to stop writing it due to an illness. This led to Lowder arguably writing the first ¾ of the novel before conceding the book, and a majority of the series, to fellow British writer Laurence James. James was a member of the “Piccadilly Cowboys” and wrote 12-14 novels a year under various pen-names. Before working on the ‘Deathlands’ series, James had contributed to motorcycle, Viking, science fiction and post-apocalyptic novels.
The book’s opening pages presents a detailed history of how Earth was ravaged by a nuclear exchange in 2001. It’s lengthy (on paper almost 20 pages), and documents a ton of information that I thought I might need to remember…but it turns out none of it even matters other than Earth has changed significantly due to bombs and radiation (yes, it’s the inevitable Soviet-US fiery transaction). Geography consists of various hot and cold spots with dark clouds that seemingly burn the sky. Mutants, sickness and plagues take over and cull the weak, resulting in decades of famine and death. The opening chapter puts us in 2101, 100 years removed from the big bang and roughly two to three generations after the civilization that we know. The end result is a barren wasteland that resembles some sort of alien landscape than the Earth that we all know and love. Mutants, telepaths, warriors and Barons (leaders) populate what was once the US, ruling small villages and towns and recreating the shambles of what life once was despite the “nuclear winter” effects. It’s medieval, putting this book and series more in line with the fantasy genre than the typical post-nuke adventure.
No disrespect to Lowder, but his writing style for the first half of the book is very restless. About 100 pages in I was seriously questioning my decision to read this and if I had enough focus to retain much of the information presented. There is a lot to unpack after several chapters, including multiple characters that could be major or minor characters early on. At one point I couldn’t keep track of which character was saying the dialogue and how they were related to the group. The book’s opening half centers around a telepathic mutant named Kurt who is assisting a group of bandits. They are attempting a journey north into a frosty wasteland known as The Darks. It’s here that a fabled treasure of supplies and wealth exists…yet no one has ever returned from the area safely. As soon as the group enter the area…tentacles and claws emerge from the fog and they are seemingly killed off.
From that point we are then introduced to a mysterious guy named Trader and his motorized convoy as they travel to the ville of Mocsin. Trader runs three large trucks (what I would think of as armored tractor trailers) and about 40 men and women - including his comrade, and series main star, Ryan Cawdor. This group are legendary traders and travelers and do business with the Baron Jordan Teauge, a notoriously bad man that has quite the reputation for raping, killing and stealing. The group is attacked by mutants led by a character named Scale before eventually rescuing another series mainstay, the beautiful Krysty Wroth (I told you there were a ton of characters). The convoy engages in road combat and run ‘n gun with a host of baddies including mutants named Stickies (they literally pull flesh from bones on contact) and Teauge’s rogue baddie Cort Strasser. Eventually, the convoy arrives near Mocsin where the book settles into a groove at the halfway point.
Lowder finishes off his portion of the book with a bit of western styled storytelling. Ryan, Krysty and company are captured by the now crooked Strasser and Teauge. During their capture, they meet an interesting character named Doc Tanner who may, or may not be, from another time period all together. He speaks in Victoria era broken sentences, but seems to know more about The Darks than anyone else. The gang breaks free of Strasser and eventually reunites with Trader and the convoy. More skirmishes and gunfights occur as the group attempts to escape Strasser and an army of mutants. Along the way we learn Trader is dying, Ryan is in love with Krysty and the whole group is embarking on a trip to The Darks to learn the secrets or seal their fate.
In what is essentially the whole premise of the book, the gang fractures off into a main cast of just eight characters as they learn that “redoubts” exist all over the country. Think of these as teleportation stations that allow them to jump all over the country in seconds. We assume that they somehow lead to time travel based on Doc’s misplacement in 2101…but future volumes will address that (I hope). The book finishes on a cliffhanger that promises a second book will continue the current storyline.
The book’s much more focused and arranged with James writing the last fourth and I’m glad that we slimmed down on the number of characters. While the first half was a bit messy, I’m a bit sympathetic with Lowder’s monumental undertaking. He had a lot of ground to cover, a huge storyline to introduce and just under a few hundred pages to accomplish the feat. While I’m sorry he couldn’t finish his effort, James really comes in and makes it his own. I’m looking forward to more of this series. Science fiction, fantasy, action adventure? Really it is all three with a slight nod to Lovecraft horror. This was a surprising concept that definitely puts ‘Deathlands’ outside of the typical post-nuke novels of the 80s and early 90s.