Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Deathwatch

Author Robb White concentrated on juvenile fiction, writing nearly 30 novels between 1935-1985 (he passed away in 1990). Along with novels, he teamed with horror director William Castle to pen screenplays, including classics like “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler”, both featuring the iconic Vincent Price. Along with feature films, he wrote television scripts for “Perry Mason”, “The Silent Service” and “Men of Annapolis”. His 1956 novel “Up Periscope” was adapted to film in 1959 starring James Gardner (later to be spoofed in 1996's film “Down Periscope”). His most identifiable work is the 1972 young adult title “Deathwatch”, a Scholastic mainstay in school libraries in the 70s and 80s. The novel was adapted for film twice – 1974's “Savages” starring Andy Griffith and 2015's “Beyond the Reach” starring Michael Douglas. The fact that it received film treatments twice speaks volumes. It's simply a fantastic story.

Young Ben is a college student who works as a hunting guide in what I presume is a California desert. His client is a pompous Los Angeles businessman named Madec, who is in the desert for a week with Ben hunting bighorn sheep. In the opening chapter, Madec claims he sees horns on a mountainside and fires. Unfortunately, Madec mistakenly shot an elderly prospector. Ben hands his own rifle to Madec and hikes down the mountain to gather a sheet for the body and to drive the Jeep a little closer. Upon return to the corpse, Madec makes a plea and attempts to bribe Ben into disposing of the body and continuing on the hunt. Ben refuses and things get rather grim quickly.

Madec then leaves Ben in the desert in his underwear with no food or water. He knows Ben will never make the exhausting 40 mile trek to freedom, but will stand by and “harass” Ben. Thus, White's narrative is fully developed. Ben makes a run for it, hoping to survive harsh conditions and Madec's rifle shots. The bulk of the story is Ben's will to survive under the most extreme conditions. While catering to young adults, it cuts no corners. Ben's feet start to erode off as he walks on hot and jagged rocks, losing blood while becoming dehydrated. His saving grace is finding an old sling-shot, which he uses to his advantage to hunt and defend.

While the “hunt human prey” adventure story is compelling, the author steps up with the book's closing chapters. Seamlessly, the book changes locations from desert to sheriff's office. It's this portion that showcases more of a legal drama, recapping the events from both Ben and Madec's points of view. It's just as fascinating as the fast-paced desert survival yarn. Overall, White's “Deathwatch” is a classic adventure tale that's still in print.