If you can handle the squickiness and enjoy alternate histories and post-apocalyptic societies, read on!
In The Dead Lands, the action begins in the Sanctuary, formerly known as St. Louis, Missouri, approximately 150 years after a global flu pandemic and subsequent nuclear warhead detonations and reactor meltdowns destroy the world as we know it. The Sanctuary is a parched, cramped little insular world, surrounded by a massive wall that keeps all the bad out — and keeps its residents in. Water is scarce and growing scarcer. Residents of the Sanctuary are convinced that they’re it, all that’s left of humanity in this miserable world. It’s been at least 60 years since an outsider has shown up seeking entry. Meanwhile:
The wall is a constant in Simon’s life, everywhere he looks, impossible to miss. Yet it is as common as dust, as heat, as the sun’s blazing path across the sky, and it is easy to go days, weeks, without noticing it. It is of uneven height but at its tallest point reaches a hundred feet from the ground. In some places it is made from plaster and mortared stone, and in others, heaps of metal, the many-colored cars of another time, crushed and welded together into massive bricks that bleed rust when it rains.
The Sanctuary is ruled with an iron fist by the mayor, an autocratic dictator who suffers no dissent and who has instituted a policy of harsh punishment, including a brutally disgusting death penalty, for anyone who dares to criticize the regime, even by so much as a drunken comment in a bar among friends.
The sole spot of peace and possible civility in this harsh settlement is in the museum, run by Lewis Meriwether, a reclusive, odd, studious man who is both feared and respected by the residents of the Sanctuary. People flock to the museum to bask in the wonders of bygone worlds, despite the curator’s strangeness.
Life in the Sanctuary is disrupted when a rider appears from out of the dust — a girl on horseback, with all black eyes, bearing a message and begging to be heard. She is shot before she can deliver the message and is immediately captured and sentenced to death — but the message gets through all the same. She brings word of another civilization, on the Oregon coast, where there is rain and agriculture and a thriving community. The mayor wants nothing of this and tries to keep it secret, but Meriwether and a guard named Mina Clark agree to join the messenger, Gawea, and together with a few others, carry out a desperate escape from their walled city.
Do the names ring a bell? Lewis and Clark? Gawea… as in Sacagawea? The Dead Lands reimagines the Lewis & Clark expedition in this harsh, dead world, as our band of escapees flees through the barren, dry areas outside of the Sanctuary, following the dried-up bed of the Missouri River in search of water, shelter, and salvation. Along the way, they face untold horrors and dangers. Due to the high post-disaster radiation levels, all sorts of horrible mutations have taken place, so that the albino bats are but one nasty specimen that wants to eat, kill, or maim the travelers. Hazardous landscapes pose endless threats, as the oil fields continue to burn, creating micro nuclear winters, and the few signs of life they do see come with new and strange risks. And as the group travels onward, we see that animals and vegetation aren’t the only forms of life that have evolved in strange ways due to radiation. Lewis exhibits weird, almost magical telekinetic abilities, and Gawea has powers of her own.
The imagery throughout The Dead Lands is horror-novel worthy. (Did I mention the albino bats already?) It’s bleak, dark, and dismal. Very bad things happen. Nightmarish creatures arrive out of nowhere. As soon as one threat is dealt with, another appears to take its place. And as you might expect, people turn out to be the biggest threat of all. Because, of course, a utopian agrarian society in the Pacific Northwest is probably too good to be true, right? The other humans out there are vicious in their own way, and as happens so often in this type of book, those who can seize power do, and everyone else is forced into one form of servitude or another.
There are some very interesting concepts, including the reestablishment of city-states as small empires. The suffering of the people, in the Sanctuary as well as elsewhere, makes you marvel that anyone bothers to survive at all, given how horrible it all is. The people with power are awful and self-aggrandizing and unbelievably decadent, reminding me of the worst of the Roman emperors, perhaps, indulging in wasteful, steamy hot baths while the common folks quench their thirst via animal blood, sucking rocks, and worse.
Setting the story in the future, yet including characters from American history, makes everything feel very circular. Is slavery inevitable in human societies? Is the impulse for the strong to dehumanize the weak somehow hardwired into our DNA? In The Dead Lands, it certainly seems that way. Does a totalitarian society encourage those with sadistic tendencies to rise to power? If the Sheriff of the Sanctuary is any indication, that would be a yes. Society itself has reverted to a bygone time, thanks to the end of technology and industry:
Apothecaries, tinkers, blacksmiths, seers. Old words, old ways. So much about the world has reverted, so that it is not so much the future people once imagined, but a history that already happened, this time like a time long ago.
The descriptions of the ravaged world are horrible yet evocative:
The remains of the St. Louis Arch, collapsed in the middle, appear like a ragged set of mandibles rising out of the earth.
Even a passionate interlude between two illicit lovers is presented as disturbing… and pretty gross:
What they are doing is kissing, though it looks much like eating. Their mouths opening and closing hungrily, their teeth biting down on lips, cheeks. Then they pull apart, their faces are a splotchy red and he is bleeding from the corner of his mouth.
The writing in The Dead Lands is wildly disturbing and imaginative. While the explorers push forward, even when it seems pointless and impossible, it’s not from a true sense of hope, but rather because there simply is no alternative but to keep going.
Not so long ago Lewis believed in the end of the rainbow. A shire. An emerald city. Elysian fields. What his childhood storybooks promised. He believed, back when they first set out from the Sanctuary, that something arcadian awaited them. Not anymore. Now now. Not when he sees the bone-riddled ruins of Bozeman. It is not only the landscape that disappoints. It is humankind. Inside and outside the wall, humans remain the same, capable of wonderful things, yes, but more often excelling in ruin.
The ending felt a little abrupt and puzzling to me, and didn’t quite pull together all of the many story threads in this big, complicated book. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it all meant, and the open-ended nature of the ending makes me wonder if a sequel is in the works.
Do I recommend The Dead Lands? Yes, but only for those with a strong stomach and a willingness to read a book that is terribly unpleasant and often horrific. It’s disturbing and sometimes icky, and I’d be scared to death to read this on a camping trip with only a campfire to ward off all the nightmares waiting in the dark. The world of The Dead Lands is as awful as the title promises, so don’t expect moments of grace or redemption along the way. Most of all, don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Bad things happen. To lots of people.
Have I scared you away from this book yet? I’m glad I read it, really, I am! But it’s heavy and morbid, and you should know that before you start. As for me, I think I’ll track down a copy of the author’s previous novel, Red Moon, which also sounds quite disturbing. (I think I’d better read some books about kitties and unicorns first.)
Side note: I did find some of the similarities to Station Eleven a bit odd — flu pandemic, nuclear meltdowns, scavenging abandoned houses for supplies, even a TV set up like a diorama. I suppose it’s not too far-fetched — seen one crumbling civilization, seen ’em all — but a few of these elements really jumped out at me, having read Station Eleven fairly recently. Just saying.
Title: The Dead Lands
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: May 14, 2015
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Adult fiction/post-apocalyptic/horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley