Showing posts with label Deathlands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Deathlands. Show all posts

Friday, February 10, 2023

Deathlands #07 - Dectra Chain

Let's talk about Deathlands. So far, the series has been solid except for the mediocre fourth installment, Crater Lake. I can chalk that up to, “everyone has a bad night”, even paperback warrior Laurence James. But, James rebounded in a big way with the series' turning point, Homeward Bound, and subsequent post-apocalyptic western Pony Soldiers. I was really looking forward to this seventh novel to see where we go from here in terms of location and quality. Dectra Train was published by Gold Eagle in 1988 and remains available as a Graphic Audio Book wherever quality 80s over-the-top, post-apocalyptic literature is offered. 

After the stint in the American southwest, Ryan and the gang enter the redoubt and make the leap. Their jarred landing puts them in another redoubt that appears as if it was just utilized by someone or something. I would imagine this little plot sprinkle will re-surface in a future installment. It's like a Quantum Leap episode where Sam discovers another leaper. 

Inside the redoubt, the group's newest member, the Apache shaman Man Whose Eyes Sees No More, receives his simpler name of Donfil More, inspired by his favorite rock duo, The Everly Brothers. The group emerges from the redoubt and find a barrage of water and a mutant. After contending with the obstacles, the heroes make a raft and battle a great white shark. It turns out that the group have arrived at a seaside area of what once was the state of Maine. The author perhaps adds in a bit of his literary influences by having the group discover a road sign that lists Jerusalem's Lot (the Stephen King fictional town; Salem's Lot) and Miskatonic University (H.P. Lovecraft lore). Total freakout coolness moment. 

On with the show, Ryan leads his band of travelers to a coastal village called Claggartville. The town works in the whaling industry and have a variety of ships and crews, the largest being the Salvation captained by a hideous, sadistic woman named Pyra Quadde. The narrative leads to Ryan and Donfil placed in shackles aboard the Salvation performing hard labor. It's a typical prison-break styled story as the heroic duo attempt to survive their harsh environment while planning an escape. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang are planning to set sail to find Ryan in their hijacked boat. 

Dectra Chain is a total blast. It's like a combination of Lovecraft and Moby Dick in the smooth, velvety afterglow of a destructive mushroom cloud. I like the fact that each of the heroes had a small part to play, including Doc's unwavering voice of wisdom, which isn't completely lost in the violence and gunfire. Some could argue that this is just another nautical adventure with all of the familiar tropes, and there is some truth to that, but having these memorable Deathlands characters fighting it out on the high seas was really clever. I loved the plot development, the bad guys (and girls), the locale, and the journey through Maine in autumn. Overall, another solid installment in what is slowly becoming one of my favorite series titles of all-time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Deathlands #06 - Pony Soldiers

Laurence James wrote a number of successful western titles like Crow, Apache and Gunslinger in the 1970s and 1980s. His violent narration provided a raw and gravelly texture to the monomyth threads of western vengeance. From that aspect, I was curious to read the author's combination of post-apocalyptic and western genres with Deathlands' sixth installment Pony Soldiers, originally published by Gold Eagle in May of 1988. 

In the last installment of the series, Homeward Bound, the original tale of Ryan Cawdor was revealed, including the final details of that story arc. After the action stopped in Virginia, the band returned to the northeast to enter the New York redoubt. Like prior novels, the heroes battle mutants before making a jump through the gate and return to a familiar place - the Alaskan redoubt featured in the series second entry Red Holocaust. In these opening chapters, Jak is hurt by a mutant animal.

Instead of staying in the Alaska location, the group choose to pursue another adventure and re-entered the redoubt. This time, they emerge in a hot, dusty desert somewhere in what was originally the southwest United States. After seeing corpses of 1800's U.S. Cavalry soldiers, Doc becomes concerned that the group has somehow made a leap back through time to the late nineteenth century. Thankfully, we realize that isn't the case. Instead, the heroes fall into a familiar scenario - warlike factions fighting for territory, supplies and superiority.

In a rather clever twist, the heroes, including the dying Jak, face off against "Pony Soldiers" led by a blonde haired maniac that may or may not be the historically famous General George C. Custer. During a firefight, Cawdor and the group are assisted by a tribe of Apache warriors led by Cuchillo Oro. Cawdor discovers that the Pony Soldiers could be involved with an old enemy, Cort Strasser. Together, the Apache warriors and the Cawdor group combine their forces to destroy the deranged and often sadistic Pony Soldiers.

As I mentioned earlier, James has a lot of fun with this book and turns it into a violent western novel similar to the titles he was writing in the 1970s. Macabre torture devices, dissection, crucifixions and the usual assortment of barbaric crimes used throughout this novel are all staples of his 1970s style of writing. In fact, fellow British author Terry Harknett’s hero Edge is quoted as a legend in the region. In addition, the name Cuchillo Oro may be familiar to fans of the Apache series from James. In this series, which began in 1974, Cuchillo Oro is the hero's name, an Apache warrior who carries a shiny golden dagger. The Cuchillo Oro in this episode of Deathlands is not the same hero as the Apache series, however the names suggest that the two are related.

Pony Soldiers advance the overall storyline and provides a number of action-packed sequences that capture the same essence and quality the series typically possesses. There's a new character that joins the group at the end of the novel and an establishment that Cort Strasser may appear as a main villain again. Overall, another solid entry into the series and further proof that Laurence James really turned the corner with Homeward Bound. This was an enjoyable reading experience.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Deathlands #05 - Homeward Bound

In January 1988, the Deathlands series continued with the fifth instalment, Homeward Bound. It was written by Laurence James, an English author who contributed to the first 33 novels in the series. In previous instalments, this basic group of six heroes was defined, including the complex role of leader Ryan Cawdor. After Neutron Solstice, the third volume of the series, a sky-level origin is explained concerning Ryan's childhood home and the existing family. As the title suggests, Homeward Bound is a real origin story with Ryan returning to his former home town to settle some old debts.

After the events of the previous novel, Crater Lake, the heroes enter the redoubt (like a teleportation chamber) and eventually emerge in northern New York. After quickly recovering supplies and weapons, the heroes begin a long voyage along the northeast coast. To match the typical action pattern of the series, this trek involves battles with bandits and mutants on the Mohawk and Hudson River. James' spends brief moments, allowing readers to absorb the loss and devastation of historical places as the characters pass New York City's destroyed Twin Towers (eerily prophetic), the Statue of Liberty and even a brief explanation of America's Civil War battles. 

After the long coastal voyage, the heroic group arrives at Virginia's Front Royal. Ryan starts explaining some of his past to the group, including his relationship with his brother Harvey. He was the second of three sons born to Titus and Cynthia Cawdor. Ryan's mom passed away one year after he was born. When Harvey was 14, he murdered his brother Morgan and then attempted to kill Ryan. In the violent exchange, Ryan lost one eye and was given a horrible scar on his cheek. Ryan managed to escape and Harvey eventually murdered their father.

After a number of exciting chases and shootouts, the group finds a mysterious man named Nathan Freeman leading a patrol on the outskirts of a village called Sherville. This is where Ryan begins to recognize Nathan as part of the family of his past. The group discusses the Baron Harvey's brutal dictatorship over Front Royal, complete with an "orchard" of decomposing bodies that failed to comply with Harvey's strictly enforced rules. Ryan also finds out that Harvey has an evil wife and a sadistic mutated son. The plan of attack is to just waltz around Front Royal as traders hoping to infiltrate the kingdom to strategize an attack. Needless to say, things are going very badly for the group in the second half of the book as Ryan and his friends are held prisoner for a "most dangerous game" hunting exhibit.

I was only lukewarm about this series after reading the first four novels. I enjoyed the debut, Pilgrimage to Hell, but found it a little confusing and fragmented, partly due to being written by James after original author Christopher Lowder's departure. The second volume, Red Holocaust, was a more definite plot with an exciting premiss of Ryan fighting the Soviet Union in Alaska. The subsequent Neutron Solstice and Crater Lake weren't particularly memorable and became very predictable. 

Homeward Bound is by far the best entry in the series thus far. It marks a milestone in Deathlands with so many events from the past and the near future having an important impact on these characters. The action sequences, dialogue and expansive second half were gripping, violent and often humorous. The chase segments at the end were phenomenal and the threesome of villains was interesting enough to keep them from being just one-dimensional characters. All in all, it was absolutely a solid novel and that gives me great hope for the next installments. I think James really turned the corner here and I'm expecting nothing but great things moving forward.

Note - This novel was the premise for the SyFy channel's 2003 film. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 22, 2018

Deathlands #04 - Crater Lake

Gold Eagle brought us the fourth volume of Laurence James' 'Deathlands' saga in August of 1987. “Crater Lake” picks up after the happenings of the third book, “Neutron Solstice”. From the hot Mississippi basin, the group entered the redoubt only to emerge in frigid Oregon. It's a return back to the harsh winter elements found in “Red Holocaust”. After a quick hike down the road they come to the bizarre little town of Ginnsburg Falls.

The town is strictly organized into a hierarchy that places women well below social classes. In Ginnsburg Falls, women exist for breeding and slavery. This theme has run rampant in doomsday and prepper fiction so it's nothing too original or innovative. Quickly, series' mainstays Lori and Krysty are placed in holding pens and it's just a matter of time before Ryan fights back. After a stoning ritual, the team manages to escape security and heads into the forbidden north region, a volcanic island called Crater Lake. 

The team stumbles on what appears to be another redoubt in an area called the Wizard Island  Complex for Scientific Advancement. Essentially, it's a fortified lab that once housed over 1,500 scientists. Cutting themselves off from civilization, the group resulted to inbreeding over the years and now the remaining party is 60 psychos that are hoping to destroy the Earth again. After targeting Jak for research, the team find themselves prisoners on the island with another “escape the bad guys” narrative.

The book is really two story-lines that are very comparable to each other. One, escape Ginnsburg Falls and the second is the island fiasco. There's the prison aspect, a few firefights and an enjoyable adventure to be found, but it's really starting to become redundant and borrowed at this point. I hope the series does improve, but based on this book alone I may be ready to retire early. Of note is a hint of who and where Doc originally came from as well as the death of a major character. No spoilers here.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Deathlands #03 - Neutron Solstice

Gold Eagle released “Neutron Solstice” in March of 1987. The novel is the third installment in the long running post-apocalyptic series 'Deathlands' and is penned by Laurence James (as James Axler). The last book, “Red Holocaust”, had our magnificent seven entering a redoubt in Alaska, with the last page promising that the exit would be hot. Thus the stage is set for this book, “Neutron Solstice”, which has it's location in the balmy swamps of Louisiana.

At 254-pages, this book could have shaved 50+ pages off. Aside from a few firefights, it's lacking any forward pacing or substantial plot development. Instead, it methodically sets up exploration, locations and the familiar “kidnap and torture” premise that's overly utilized. Voodoo themes, telekinesis and even the walking dead are par for the course for any destructive fantasy set on the bayou, yet even those factors don't elevate the book to an enjoyable pace. The end result finds this one average at best.

The story has Ryan and his crew facing a squad of bullies led by the tall, crippled Baron Tourment (get it?). He has a physic mutation and fears that his kingdom will fall to a man with one eye – Ryan. The Baron is camped in a Best Western hotel with troops and a lieutenant named Mephisto. Across the village at Holiday Inn lies our heroes, now six after losing a member. There's endless scouting and planning, that ultimately leads to Krysty and Lori being captured and used as rape bait. Ryan's team aligns with a ragtag group of survivors led by Jak Lauren, an albino teenager that has a knack for killing. The finale is entertaining but highly predictable. 

Embedded in the narrative is some backstory on Ryan. His home is in Front Royal, VA and he escaped death at the hands of his evil brother Harvey. This sinister sibling killed Ryan's older brother Morgan and is also the culprit behind Ryan's missing eye. Harvey also sired a child with his father's wife. It's messy and will eventually be expanded in the fifth novel “Homeward Bound”. In between is the fourth title, "Crater Lake". I'm on it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Deathlands #02 - Red Holocaust

Laurence James (as James Axler) takes over full-time for the second entry in the post-apocalyptic series ‘Deathlands’. “Red Holocaust” was released in September of 1986, 90-days from the release of series debut “Pilgrimage to Hell”. This series is a conglomerate of science-fiction and post-nuke elements, neatly wrapped in a jacket of men’s action adventure tales. It’s a unique series, and with that comes an abundance of cheers and jeers from genre fans. I could fall in the middle as a borderline fan, but I’ve only fully digested the first two books. There’s plenty to unpack in the series with over 120 volumes making up this epic storyline.

“Red Holocaust” picks up from the end results of the first book. Ryan and the crew are emerging from a redoubt location they entered somewhere in the pacific northwest. They quickly find they are in a large stone chamber that houses cameras and speakers. While not directly threatened at this early junction, the group find they are in a precarious position. Soon, a mysterious voice comes on known as “The Keeper”. This voice commands they lay down weapons and exit the chamber or they will be gassed. The group is hesitant but continue through the exit. This redoubt is in the northern most point of Alaska and sits underground in a 70-mile long bunker. The author describes it as a large shopping mall complete with store fronts, supplies and endless media. This underground fortress is solely maintained by an old man, The Keeper, and his two wives Lori and Rachel. The three pose no immediate threat and allow Ryan and company to stay at the bunker as long as they like. The group rearms themselves using one of the shops. Ryan and Krysty take the time for lovemaking while the others rest up, watch old movies and reacquaint themselves into a regular lifestyle – as short as it may be.

Meanwhile, an army of Russians have moved into the Bering Strait area and are attempting to cross over into Alaska. These “Narodniki” (translated to proponents of Russian propaganda) are on a track to the US hoping that history books are correct. They feel that America is still firmly intact after the war, housing beautiful women, skyscrapers, large cities and immense wealth. The group is led by an imbecile named Uchitel and his brother. The author poses them as vile terrorists and makes their trek a primary piece of the book. The Narodniki take over small villages, rape everyone and engage in atrocious forms of torture and punishment. While this is happening, another group of Russian fundamentalists are in pursuit of the Narodniki – although we never really learn why. This army is led by Major Zimyanin and pieces of their trek is shown to the reader – albeit far less interesting.

At one point, Ryan is warned to never leave the bunker due to mutants prowling the outer walls. Obviously, he dismisses said warnings and journeys out only to be attacked immediately. Later, Ryan and Krysty find that there may be a pile of dead bodies inside the bunker and The Keeper and Rachel could be more dangerous than the initial observations. After leaving the armory (and seeing a crucified baby), the team is assaulted by The Keeper and Rachel and saved by an early warning from Lori. The group escape the bunker only to run into the Narodniki savages. The team is captured in a wild finale that features a nuclear bomb, Russian armies and a small earthquake. In what could be a future formula, the team “solves the crisis” and enters the redoubt once again. Book three will ultimately show the next destination and adventure.

From a development perspective, “Red Holocaust” provides plenty of thought provoking entertainment that sets more of the series’ mythology. We learn that Doc’s real name is Theophilus Tanner and that the redoubts can technically be time traveling portals. Doc explains that the government was perfecting the process but continually would lose travelers or pieces of the subjects each time they attempted forward or future travel. This book also thins out the herd a little by killing off a few members of Ryan’s team. We started with over 30…now we are down to a half-dozen. More importantly, the reader provides a lot of details regarding Krysty and her mutant powers. She has hair that can move and grasp things at her will while also allowing her incredible strength by calling on Mother Earth. I’m sure this will be expanded as we get further into the series. Next up is “Neutron Solstice” as the action moves into the deep south.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Deathlands #01 - Pilgrimage to Hell

‘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.

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