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Literature / Ashfall

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The most terrifying apocalypse is one that can really happen.

Alex's weekend started out as he liked it: alone in his house to play videogames. Up until something collides with his house, setting it on fire, and the power and phone lines go out at the same time.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Ashfall Trilogy, written by Mike Mullin, chronicles the story of 16 year old Alex Halprin, a survivor in the aftermath of Yellowstone's supervolcanic eruption. After a rather traumatic home invasion experience while staying with his friends, he decides to run away and look for his parents eastward under the ashcloud. He puts on a pair of skis and takes off.

Along the way, he encounters both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. A few people willing to assist him, others interested in killing him and taking his supplies. He collapses in Mrs Edmund's barn after a run-in with an escaped convict named Target, and her daughter, Darla, later follows him out on his journey to find his parents eastward.


No relation to the South Korean movie of the same name released in 2019 besides their titles coming from volcanic ashfalls.

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     Series Wide 
  • After the End
  • Crapsack World: The entire world is plunged into a volcanic winter, and the resulting apocalypse brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. Opportunistic bandits roam the countryside, and cannibalism is not unheard of. Even when spring comes, it's going to be a very long time before things return to pre-eruption life.
    • Might be subverted by the end of Sunrise, as Alex has succeeded in building a new city named Speranta, basing its law off of constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, even succeeding in building a working series of windmills and greenhouses to provide electricity and food for its people. While the world is still no place for Wide Eyed Idealists, the protagonists still earn their happy ending, while the villains fail to survive because their own brutal methods are detrimental to their survival.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Referenced frequently throughout the series.
    • Alex becomes worried that his father might fall victim to this as he watches him sadistically torture a flenser for information, only to slit his throat once he's done.
    • In Sunrise, Alex admits internally that he wouldn't mind if his flesh was eaten in order to prolong someone's life. However, after that, there would be nothing to distinguish his friends from the universally hated Flensers.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The apocalypse brings out both the best and worst in people.
  • Karmic Death: frequent.
    • In Ashfall, the first villains of the story are shot dead by a chrome pistol, and Darren doesn't even spare the last one as he tries to flee.
    • Ferret is killed almost immediately after raping Mrs Edmunds.
    • Alex kills Target by dropping a millstone on his head as he was at work trying to burn the barn down.
    • In Sunrise, many flenser gangs had fallen victim to their own survival strategy: many of the flensers turned on each other when they ran out of food, and the ones still alive are suffering from debilitating illnesses related to their cannibalistic lifestyles.
    • After Red alienates all of his followers, he is easily duped by Alex's false promise to give up Speranta if he wins a one on one knife fight against him. Just as he's winning the knife fight, Darla beats him in the back of the head with the rifle and shoots him dead.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Obviously, since it's the apocalypse, and food is scarce.
    • first mentioned in Ashfall when a mother of several young children screams at Alex, accusing him of being a satanic cannibal interested in eating her nearly-dead daughter. After he calms her down and gives her assistance, she reveals that she was properly paranoid: her husband had been murdered and eaten by a gang of cannibals.
    • Almost the entirety of Ashen Winter deals with the conflict that the protagonists have with various gangs of depraved cannibals and slave traders.
    • Cannibalism as a strategy for survival is brutally deconstructed in Sunrise, where various flenser gangs have turned on each other, sealing their own doom as organizations. Many of the survivors have also acquired prion diseases, making them relatively easy to pick off by anyone who hates the flensers.
  • No FEMA Response: A rather horrifying subversion: FEMA does respond, but it would have been better had they not. Instead of helping people, FEMA restricts the movement of refugees, and their camps operate more like concentration camps rather than refugee camps. To make matters worse, they execute non-compliant individuals by locking them up in doghouses and subjecting them to starvation diets. This is done because apparently it's easier to just say that they died from exposure to the elements rather than straight up admit to murdering them. Darla and Alex escape when the former offers to be a prostitute for the utterly corrupt captain of the FEMA camp, then takes her opportunity to steal a bulldozer and break open the doghouse that Alex is locked away in.
    • Conditions somewhat improve in Ashen Winter, when the Colonel convinces FEMA to feed the refugees with the grain found in an abandoned ship in the middle of the Mississippi river. He even allows the protagonists to escape the camp in exchange for vital information in taking down a prison gang. He still follows orders to prevent the refugees from migrating eastward, however.
    • Played straight in Sunrise, as the complete collapse of the government leads to the complete abandonment of the camps, which allows the refugees to easily escape and flee eastward.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Both inverted and played straight, naturally. Everything that was valuable in the pre-eruption world is worthless (gold, dollar bills, etc), but things like firearms or vitamin C rich foods like kale or fruit loops becomes extremely valuable.
    • In Sunrise, this means that it's a lot easier for Alex to find Darla a wedding ring than it is to scavenge for other supplies. Everybody has already taken the food, weapons, and other tools, but they don't waste time with jewelery that does nothing but look pretty.
  • Fed to Pigs: An accidental variation of the trope: Alex and Darla come across a half eaten corpse in a pig pen, and they realize that the guy must have injured himself, leaving himself vulnerable to his own starving pigs.
  • Killing Intent: Implied when Darren kills several home invaders, even as one of them tries to flee for his life. This terrifies Alex enough for him to retreat to his own ruined house.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: When Darla becomes traumatized by her mother's death, she keeps her one last surviving rabbit as a pet, responding negatively to Alex's insistence on abandoning it or his suggestions on butchering and eating it. This is truly ironic, since she kept him as a meat rabbit previously.
  • Smiting Evil Feels Good: Lampshaded and then Averted. Alex does not feel any satisfaction from killing Target and avenging Mrs Edmund's death. He simply feels numb horror at all the senseless death Target had caused.
  • Stupid Crooks: Zig-zagged. Target is smart enough to cause plenty of damage and carnage in his wake, but he's too stupid to realize that he has to reload his double barreled shotgun. This ends up saving Alex's and Darla's lives.
     Ashen Winter 
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!: Alex's dad defies this by acting as vulgar and crass as possible when staging a slave trade with a flenser. This disgusts Alex so much he admits internally that he had an irrational desire to shoot him.
  • Fire Purifies: After killing all three of the last surviving members of a dying flenser gang, a suggestion to bury the remains comes up. Alex vetos it, stating that nothing short of burning the entire building down would suffice.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: Red is a bloody tyrant who bases his law on vengeance and an eye for an eye mentality. However, his brutal methods do not endear him well to the majority of Stockton, most of whom are more than happy to revolt when Ed tells them about Speranta. This is contrasted with Alex, who obtains power naturally and bases his laws on the US constitution and the Bill of Rights.
  • Mayor Pain: Robert Petty is a pompous, incompetent old fart who, while apparently well beloved by his town, is completely incapable of ruling a town in a post-apocalyptic world. He repeatedly leads unsuccessful counter attacks on Stockton in order to regain their stolen property. Even after Ben and Alex are proven right in their warnings that Petty's strategies wouldn't work, he still refuses to take their advice, even turning the rest of Warren against them, forcing them to mostly rely on their own resources. Even after he is forced to flee the destruction of Warren to Speranta, it's quite apparent that he lacks the humility to admit that his years of experience as mayor are insufficient to deal with post-apocalyptic realities, especially since it means taking advice from (or even being subservient to!) what he sees as mere teenagers.
  • Stupid Evil: The flenser's main survival method turns out to be their own undoing in the long term, as they end up turning on each other in response to their food supplies running out, and those still alive are suffering from debilitating illnesses that are a direct result of their cannibalistic lifestyle.
    • Red cares more about satisfying his ego, his sadism, and bloodlust than about winning his people over so that they will follow him. They're more than happy to abandon him in favor of moving to Speranta.
  • Uncleanliness Is Next to Ungodliness: many of the flenser gangs have degenerated even further than they have in previous books. Three of the last surviving members of one particular gang are found in an abandoned JC Penny in a filthy den full of rotting human remains. At least one or two are afflicted with debilitating illnesses, and the one flenser still healthy enough to put up a fight is still little more than a mindless, drooling animal.
  • Xanatos Gambit: in order to stoke Red's ego, Alex blatantly lies to him about giving him control over Speranta if he wins a knife fight with him. He did so knowing that even if Red won the knife fight (which was the most likely outcome), he would have absolutely no power to ensure that the promise would be delivered. Darla would never follow through on Alex's false promise, and any remaining followers of Red lacked the power to carry it out, due to being vastly outnumbered. Sure enough, just as Red is about to kill Alex with his knife, Darla rushes behind him, beats him in the back of the head with her rifle, and shoots him dead.
    Darla: I didn't promise you a goddamn thing. And I never fight fair.
     Darla's Story 
  • P.O.V. Sequel: This short story covers Darla's experiences during and immediately after the eruption, and ends at the point that she meets main character Alex.

Alternative Title(s): Ashen Winter, Sunrise, Darlas Story