Saturday, May 7, 2011

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny, a review

I count the first two Mad Max films among my all-time favorites. I’m a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic, but more importantly, they’re tense, well-made, well-plotted, and reasonably well-acted films. (I liked the premise and some of the ideas in Beyond Thunderdome, but it falls short of the first two). In addition, the car chase/crash sequences are among the best ever put to celluloid, even since the advent of CGI.

So it was with great anticipation that I began Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel Damnation Alley, which combines post-apocalypse, and tricked-out battlecars, and a tough ex-biker with nothing to lose.

A brief synopsis of Damnation Alley is as follows: Ex biker gang leader Hell Tanner (yes, that is his name) is offered a full pardon from L.A. officials if he agrees to deliver a vaccine to plague-stricken Boston. Sounds easy enough, but this is a North America post-nuclear war, and the heartland of America is now known as Damnation Alley, a vast wasteland of mutated monsters, roving biker gangs, lethal hail and lightning storms, and pockets of deadly radiation. Flying is impossible as the sky is torn by hurricane-force winds and deadly storms, and full of swarms of oversized bats and other monstrosities. They only way to cross this stretch is by car. Armored, eight-wheeled vehicles armed with rocket launchers, machine guns, and flame throwers are used for this purpose.

This is all cool stuff, and Damnation Alley isn’t bad, but based on the premise it should have been better. It reads like a short story artificially stretched to novel length (192 pages, paperback), and it wasn’t until after I read it that I found out that’s actually the case. Damnation Alley was published as a short story in 1967 and expanded into a novel two years later. It felt padded to me, like Zelazny tacked on a repetitive series of encounters with various monsters to increase the page count. I wanted to learn more about the collapse of society, the problems faced by the survivors in a massively depopulated country, more about the gangs and their motivation, etc, but was disappointed with its lack of depth. Zelazny also introduces a couple of bizarre nouveau writing sequences that jar with the rest of the novel (for example, he describes a radiation-driven storm with a three-page run-on sentence. Odd).

But there is much to like about Damnation Alley. Hell Tanner is the best thing about the book. If you’ve ever seen Escape from New York, think Snake Plissken, mix with Max Rockatansky, and you’re 95% there. In fact, I’d be surprised if Escape director John Carpenter and Mad Max writer/director George Miller hadn’t read Damnation Alley at some point. Like Rockatansky in The Road Warrior, Tanner starts Damnation Alley as 100% hard-bitten mercenary, seemingly caring for no one but himself. But as the story progresses he comes to realize the innocent suffering and catastrophic waste of the plague and the mission becomes personal.

Zelazny keeps the action moving with some fun sequences, a few memorable minor characters (including a tough biker chick and a mad scientist) and bits of unexpected, brutal violence. If you can get past some of the head-scratching bits (why does nuclear war cause gila monsters and snakes to grow to 20 times their normal size? Why would a nuclear exchange target mid-America, and leave the big coastal cities unscathed?) it’s a fast, enjoyable read.


Barad the Gnome said...

Funny that I never read this one, being a huge Zelazny fan. He did write a number of short stories, and was very good at the genre. He also did bundle up many of those shorts into novel like things, which were not so good. I can also say I have seen some strange bits of writing in his works as well - and am not surprised by the run on sentence.

For me, Zelazny has delivered some memorable and fun reluctant heros - that is what he does best. Corwin from Amber being my favorite but there are others.

Apparently somebody made a horrible movie loosely based on this book in the late seventies. I remember seeing some of it on TV and walking away from it... Didn't know at the time it was a bastardizing of a Zelazny work.

Fred said...

Yes, the film, _Damnation Alley_, came out in 1977 with Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard. A group of survivors on a military installation decide to head east to find someplace that's still green.

francisco said...

hey Brian, have you seen the italian postapocalyptic stuff? 1990, the Bronx warriors, Escape from the Bronx, The new barbarians, 2019, after the fall of New York, Endgame, 2020,Texas gladiators, Rome 2072 AD, the new gladiators, hey even in Spain they did one of them Exterminators of the year 3000...
By the way I have seen the film Bard the gnome and Fred said too, who was the black guy eaten by coackcroaches... glubbss... Carl Weathers?

Fred said...


I don't remember that incident, but according to, Paul Winfield was in the cast.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey guys, despite my love for Mad Max and all things postapocalyptic, no, I have not seen the 1977 film of the same name, nor the films referenced by Francisco. I've heard a few good things about the Bronx Warriors though... any recommendations from that group?

Kent said...

I wanted to learn more about the collapse of society, the problems faced by the survivors in a massively depopulated country, more about the gangs and their motivation

Have you read by John Christopher? I love the genre too and only enjoy that sub genre of Zombie movies when they address the issues you mention. [Death of grass is not a zombie story to be clear]

Kent said...

Not sure how that vanished. The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Kent, I have not read The Death of Grass, but I'll have to check it out.