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Literature / Deathlands

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Long-Running Book Series of action-adventure novels set in an After the End North America, now called Deathlands. A detailed prologue in the first novel explains how a hardline communist faction tried to decapitate the entire US political and military command structure by detonating three briefcase nukes during the Presidential inauguration, as a preliminary to a surprise nuclear attack. Things Go Horribly Wrong and the resulting nuclear, chemical and biological conflagration turns Earth into the equivalent of a Death World.

In the year 2104 life in Deathlands is nasty, brutish, short, and frequently mutated. However, the Hired Guns of the Trader have things better than most. Traveling from one feudal barony and fortified town to another in their heavily-armed wagon train, they've become adept at locating the hidden stockpiles of weapons and equipment left by the now-defunct US government.

After an attack on their convoy the Trader's war captain, Ryan Cawdor, saves and is saved by a stunningly beautiful female captive called Krysty Wroth. She is convinced that a gateway to a better world lies in The Darks (formerly known as the Glacier National Park in Montana). This is an old Urban Legend and Ryan is naturally skeptical, but events force him and several companions to seek it out. What they discover there leads them to a series of adventures across the Deathlands and beyond. Their wanderings lead them to battle an endless array of power-hungry warlords, kill-crazy marauders, mutant monsters, Mad Scientists and various other villains. Expect loads of Gorn and Gun Porn, over-the-top characters, cool events, and some crazy landscape. To date the series has reached over 100 books with multiple authors, making for some interesting adventures for the characters.

There is also Outlanders, a spin-off series set a hundred years on from the events of Deathlands. Lost Technology has been used to bring the chaotic Deathlands under the despotic rule of a centralized government backed by mysterious forces; the series depicts the efforts of a group of renegades operating from the Darks to oppose them. Employing conspiracy theories and myths from all cultures as underpinnings, Outlanders quickly distanced itself from the gun-fixated survivalist tone of Deathlands and struck out in new directions, providing explanations for many of the unresolved science-fiction elements in the earlier series.

After being in print since 1988, the series is currently out of print due to Gold Eagle Publishing closing down in 2015.

These novels provide examples of:

  • After the End: Civilization as we know it is gone. All organized civilization around the globe is destroyed in the global war between the US and the USSR. A combination of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons were used against cities and industry the world over.
  • A.K.A.-47: Plenty of weapons get this treatment, as in the HK G-12 note  wielded by Ryan in the early novels.
  • All That Glitters:
    • The group find some sealed crates and J.B. starts going into excessive detail over what exotic weapons might be in them. Everyone (except J.B.) bursts out laughing when the crates turn out to be full of thousands of plastic zippers.
    • Any number of the Redoubts that are scattered all over the U.S. and other locations. The companions frequently find nothing of real value in the old fortifications. What's worse is that there are many things left over in various facilities and other bunkers from the war that have often proven to be very dangerous, such as killer robots and the remnants of experiments that were left to run away and go wild.
    • In one redoubt the characters find a stash of what appears to be well preserved food; an often valuable find in the Death Lands. Unluckily said food leads to a severe case of food poisoning.
  • Alternate History: Premier Gorbachev dies in a plane crash in 1993, and a bloody civil war in the USSR presages the elevation of a hardline Soviet government, though it is another faction within this group that starts the war, alarmed over the decline of the Soviet Union and other events such as a civil war in South Africa, the assassination of Fidel Castro, and an active Strategic Defense Initiative.
  • Angst? What Angst? (In-Universe): When Action Girl Hunaker gets killed, Ryan says it's "like losing my blaster", telling Krysty he can't afford to feel anything more.
  • Annoying Arrows:
    • Subverted outside the very first redoubt one of the party fleeing into the darks is critically wounded by arrows. They are forced to leave them behind because the arrow wound is so bad.
    • Played straight in the Film of the Book, where Krysty Wroth yanks a crossbow bolt out of her shoulder.
  • Anti Matter: A rare variety of explosive ordinance called implosion bombs use an anti-matter charge to set them off.
  • Anyone Can Die: Any character that is not part of the long running group of characters frequently referred to as "The Companions" can be killed off during the course of a single novel, or survive for a few novels before dying.
  • Apocalypse How: A Planetary Societal Collapse. While modern civilization is pretty much obliterated as we know it, there are enough remnants such as vehicles, weapons, ammo, books and other items that they have not completely lost it all. There is even widespread organization and recovery on a scale sufficient enough to fuel small cities and large towns.
  • The Artifact: Early on Ryan used a unique weapon, the H&K G-12 (a gun that never existed). Eventually that gun would be dumped after its real world counterpart the H&K G-11 never went into production outside of a small number. So eventually Ryan was scaled back to using a Steyr rifle.
  • Badass Longcoat: Ryan is known to wear a longcoat that he scavenged; on occasion he takes it off when the heat is too much, such as the beginning of book three when he leaves the coat at the redoubt due to the humidity and temperature of the swamps.
  • Base on Wheels: The Trader uses a converted military command vehicle as base and living area while on the move.
  • BFG: A variety of popular weapon options for use in the Deathlands. Examples are M-60s, .50 caliber machine guns, auto-cannons, and grenade launchers to name a few.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Doc Tanner's sometime girlfriend, Lori, runs off and has an affair with a local bad boy. She then returns to the group, complaining that his big dick came with a small brain. Ryan dryly remarks that he "hears that's often the way".
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The nature of the Deathlands makes this a fact of life. People are flawed but there are some really bad people out there who just need killing. Expect to see a shoot-first-and-ask-later attitude due to the often justified belief that others will do the same or worse.
  • Blade Enthusiast: One of the main characteristics of Companion Jak Lauren is having about a dozen knives (at least) on his person at all times, and being very good with them.
  • Boom Head Shot: Done with often gory details about eyeballs, teeth, and fragments of bullets and bone doing nasty things; and often portrayed as one of the few sure ways to kill even tough enemies such as mutants.
  • Car Fu: The drivers of the Trader's caravan use this to great effect. Also used in general throughout the books.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: The Wizard Island Research Base. It is stated that when they blow the doomsday weapons intended to finish off the world, it would very likely set off the dormant volcano. Sure enough when they blow the facility the volcano erupts.
  • Cold Sniper: The snipers that do show up are usually cold and calculating.
  • Cool Gate: The portal booths that the characters frequently used often taking them to a new location every time they are used.
  • Crapsack World: Among the weather, landscape, mutants and other humans, the world is not a nice place to live. The constantly hostile world often means miserable and short lives frequently ending badly by violence or diseases.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Before Doc Tanner was found by Ryan and the "Companions", he was kept as entertainment by a cruel band of thugs. Whenever he failed to amuse them (which was often), they would force him to have sex with the pigs they kept. It's this and other torments inflicted on him, that did so much damage to Doc's mind.
  • Cult: There are plenty of various and sundry cults through out the death lands. Cannibalism and human sacrifice of one sort or another are common themes among the cults.
  • Deadly Gas:
    • The Soviets use chemical weapons along with their biological and nuclear weapons in the event that turned America into the Death Lands.
    • When the Trader finds a stash of nerve gas, he buries it and destroys the evidence that lead him there in the hope no-one will ever use such weapons again. Unfortunately it doesn't work; half his convoy gets gassed with nerve agents.
    • Nerve gas grenades make a few appearances, but due to the old age of the weapons, they are not always as lethal as they could be or even dangerous to handle.
  • Death World: The United States of America, also known as The Death Lands. Heavily populated by mutants and frequently scoured by deadly weather and hazardous terrain.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Large numbers of the world's population are killed off in the apocalyptic war that spawned the Death Lands.
  • Double Tap:
    • Sometimes the characters really need to make sure something is dead. This applies especially to mutants because their internal anatomy is not always the same as humans.
    • In the events and chaos of battle means not every hit stops enemies cold and some are able to continue fighting unless a follow-up shot is made.
  • Emergency Weapon:
    • People who work for the Trader have enough hidden odds and ends to make a door breaching charge. They conceal plastic explosives, wires, detonators and a signal detonator in their clothing shoes, seams, and gear.
    • Easily-concealed small weapons like derringers and knives also are used in this role, with various characters including villains using them to get out of a tight spot.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Modern civilization is gone; see Apocalypse How entry above.
  • Energy Weapon: Finnigan is killed by a faulty one in Crater Lake, and the effects are depicted with graphic details.
    Finnegan: "FFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK-! (death gargle)"
  • Evil Wears Black: The Sec forces of Mocsin are the patently obviously evil black uniform-wearing bad guys.
  • Eye Scream:
    • One of the nicer things that can possibly happen to your eyes is getting them put out. Gory depictions of eyeball destruction are frequent when it comes to eyes being injured or ripped out.
    • Neutron Solstice, the third book in the long-running series, is chock full of this. This happens to a raven, Jak Lauren's father, The Dragon Mephisto, and the Big Bad Baron Tourment after attempting to shoot his brains out.
    • The description of what happened to Ryan and how he lost his eye, as well as his occasional nightmares about it when his remaining eye is threatened.
  • Failed Future Forecast: The first novel was written in 1986 and states that WW3 began in 2001, so the series has now become 'honorary' Alternate History.
  • The Film of the Book: Sci-Fi Channel did a fairly decent adaptation of Homeward Bound, where Ryan Cawdor returns to the barony from which he was outlawed. Be prepared however for Narmish acting, too much red tint, no Doc Tanner or Lori Quint, ex-porn star Traci Lords as a Lady Macbeth-style baroness, and a complete absence of giant mutant monsters.
  • Fog of Doom: The Cerberus active defense system found guarding a few bunkers in the books. The fog is an active weapon system left over from before the war described as actively attacking and tearing apart whatever it gets ahold of.
  • Forbidden Zone: The Darks; supposedly home to a Redoubt full of riches, but no-one has ever returned from various well-armed expeditions except a couple of crazed survivors because it's guarded by the above-mentioned Fog of Doom.
  • Future Imperfect:
    • The leader of a Russian war party declares his intention to invade the former United States, having read in the old books about how it's a land of wealth and beautiful women instead of the Crapsack World it is in reality.
    • Doc Tanner's explanations of the pre-Apocalypse world sometimes fail due to his memory being confused by all the trauma he's endured.
  • Future Slang: Muties, cannies, sec men, war wag, blasters, chilled, and fireblast are the most common terms found in the books.
  • General Ripper: Way too many to count in the Death Lands themselves, but "Pilgrimage to Hell" (the first book) showcased that one of the factors that caused the end of the world as we know it was one of these getting the "luck" of being the sole remaining military leader in the aftermath of the nuking of Washington, D.C. Having secretly acquired all the nuclear launch codes, he's able to launch a counterstrike before the Soviet missiles destroy the ICBM launch sites.
  • Grenade Launcher: They are present but not widely used.
  • Gun Porn: Oh so many weapons. Many fire arms are given detailed information throughout the novels, from descriptions to how they work. Rare, high quality, or unusual guns are often found on assorted key characters at any one point.
  • Gun Stripping: Characters will frequently clean and maintain their weapons when at rest or in a quiet moment.
  • Hand Guns: Everyone seems to carry them for one reason or another and they are depicted in every size and shape from pocket pistol derringers up to massive Hand Cannon like revolvers.
  • Human Sacrifice: A popular practice with various cults. If there is a cult there is a very good chance they practice human sacrifice of some sort.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Kelber, Strasser's chief torturer, dies in this manner when he accidentally swallows a carnivorous insect he'd been planning to forcefeed to his prisoners.
    • Baron Zeal who previously burned one of Trader's men alive with his special torture chamber, eventually tries escaping an imminent explosion by jumping in said torture chamber. However, while the thick-walled torture chamber survives the massive explosion, it eventually winds up in the bottom of the crater of a destroyed refinery surrounded by burning fuel and oil, with the door wedged shut. Zeal ends up burning alive for weeks.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: Seen in the first novel, and used as a continuing theme in book covers and the Riding into the Sunset ending for the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation.
  • Hostile Weather: Weather conditions include violent hurricanes that reshape the landscape, acid rains that strip the flesh from the body, and sandstorms that can literally abrade the flesh from a body.
  • Humans Are Bastards: After the survivors of the nuclear winter came back out, apparently the bad got worse. It is noted that those that try to live peacefully and morally are frequently wiped out by those who choose not to live so.
  • I'm a Humanitarian:
    • This wonderful line on the history of Jordan Teague, Baron of Mocsin.
    "He took up with a band of mutie marauders who had a rather more liberal attitude to norms than most — that is, they accepted him, instead of slow-roasting him over a fire and eating him..."
    • A few cannibals show up in the books sometimes linked to the human sacrifice practice of various cults.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Described in the various gun battles with gory details. Villains and Mook alike suffer this death through out the book.
  • Kick the Dog: The various villains and miscreants do this to one degree or another simply because they can, and to quickly point out the bad guys in the book.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: That's because they actually work. The team once ended up at a military research facility run by inbred descendants of the scientists there. Among the research was energy weapons and the laser guns kept failing to fire. Except once... and the victim of that was one of Ryan's old buddies from his days with the Trader. That said the wounds from the laser gun were so terrible that Ryan was almost sick from horror.
  • Made-for-TV Movie: The book "Homeward Bound" got an adaptation as a Sci-Fi Channel Movie of the Week, ultra-low budget and highly gutted, but still...
  • Mad Scientist:
    • In the Crater Lake Volcano Lair there's a whole Elaborate Underground Base full of them. Their madness is amplified thanks to inbreeding and isolation from end of the war to present day of the books.
    • Dr. Tanner is a victim of the Cererbus time travel experiments that violently ripped him from his time. His recollections of the scientists of Cerberus and their related projects paints a picture of a veritable army of MadScientists.
    • The Scientists in Genesis Echo are this.
  • Military Mashup Machine:
    • The Trader's assorted caravan vehicles called war wagons. A personal transport, shelter, trading vehicle and weapons platform.
    • The book Pandora's Redoubt revolves around the Companions managing to get hold of a tank that was MacGyvered by another gang from military vehicles left in a Redoubt. The tank is described as being very makeshift—trying to be a tank, APC and (eventually because of the Big Bad getting hold of it and doing modifications) mobile throne room.
  • Moe Greene Special: Happens with gory detail through out the books.
  • More Dakka: Assault rifles and submachine guns are favored for their ability to spit hot-leaded death and for their firepower in close quarters.
  • Mutants: More mutants than you can shake a smoking gun barrel at. After the nuke humanity and nature both mutated in unpredictable ways. Shown as either victims of Fantastic Racism or the standard sci-fi pulp Always Chaotic Evil opponents.
  • Mr. Smith: Ryan Cawdor secretly returns to the barony from which he was outlawed. One of his companions suggest he use the alias "John Doe", and Ryan is less than amused to be told it's a pre-Apocalypse term for "corpses that have no name".
  • Mysterious Past: Ryan Cawdor and Doc Tanner. Ryan is the son of a wealthy baron, forced to flee after a palace coup by his Wicked Stepmother and Evil Prince brother. Doc turns out to be from the 19th century, and was time-trawled into the 20th by Project Cerebus scientists. When he kept trying to escape to his own time, the scientists sent him a hundred years into the future simply to get rid of him.
  • No Range Like Point-Blank Range: Sometimes making sure it is nearly impossible to miss is the best option, and frequently used with weapons like shotguns with gory effect.
  • Not Quite Dead: The Trader is dying of radiation poisoning in the first novel, and walks off into the woods when the pain becomes too much. He meets up with Ryan again in Trader: Redux.
  • Portal Network: The MAT-TRANS devices. They create a network of teleporter devices that link many locations inside and outside of the Deathlands and even (to a limited extent) different points in time.
  • Plot Driven Break Down: Expect this to happen to modes of transportation, the redoubts themselves, and other potentially useful items a lot. Vehicles will work just long enough in most cases before giving out. This is often justified by a lack of maintenance after a nuclear war, over use, and long periods of neglect.
  • Poisoned Weapons: Poisoned weapons are a serious worry and any melee weapon or non-firearm projectile wounds are frequently checked for a possible trace of poison.
    • Ryan mentions there are some marshland mutant groups who poison their weapons.
    • In Neutron Solstice a type of mutant fires poisoned crossbow bolts at the group.
  • Prehensile Hair: Krysty Wroth has bright red hair that moves according to her mood, wrapping tightly around her head when she is in danger.
  • Psychic Powers: Some mutants have these. Sensors, precogs, Doomies who vaguely sense bad events before the happen, and Krysty has powerful telekinetic abilities as well as potent precognitive powers.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Standard practice for raiders and bandits. The Trader however believes that Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil and forbids his men to do so on penalty of death. This earns him the trust of many otherwise hostile towns.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: In the Film of the Book it's the only outward sign of mutation, presumably to save on special effects.
  • Rule of Cool:
    • The book contains plenty instances of this to help keep the story interesting. Expect characters to do incredibly implausible things or beat impossible odds. Sometimes it is even used to set the theme or mood for where they are currently.
    • Krysty Wroth tends to be depicted in cover art holding a bolt-action Sniper Pistol, despite the fact that she'd have little use for such a weapon.
  • Sapient Tank: The absurdly persistent "Ranger" robot tank of the book Pandora's Redoubt.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism:
    • All of the Traders' vehicles have these placed into them to keep the wagons and their contents from falling into the wrong hands. When the switch is not activated after a certain period of time the convoy blows up in front of the Big Bad who'd hoped to seize it after killing everyone that was in the convoy.
    • Some of the redoubts are rigged with such a system either built in or added manually after the redoubt was evacuated.
  • Schizo Tech: Thanks to pre-War technology that's been scavenged, futuristic tech like MAT-TRANS and cyborgs and implosion grenades that's handwaved as coming from secret military projects, and whatever people can cobble together or develop themselves.
    "What kind of world is this?" he said slowly. "It's a crazed mix of the past, my present and your future. It's all bloody madness!"
  • Shoot the Messenger: In Neutron Solstice, Baron Tourment delivers this fate to a Bocor seer who warns him of the arrival of the protagonists, but can provide no further details.
  • Sniper Rifle: Proper sniper weapons are a bit more rare as the scopes are fragile or easily damaged but those that do exist are functional enough to be deadly.
  • The Starscream: It's so normal for a Baron to be overthrown by his Head Blaster that it's become something of a tradition.
  • Survivalist Stash:
    • Various military stockpiles and old bases have gear and weapons stashed all over the world but mostly in the US.
    • The Redoubts were to serve as a network of stashes of supplies, weapons, personnel, and other secrets to ensure the government could survive a nuclear conflict.
  • Tank Goodness: The novel Pandora's Redoubt revolves around the Companions jumping into a Redoubt that had been entered by another gang already, who had MacGyvered a tank out of the vehicles in the bunker's motor pool (and then they all killed each other apparently trying to take full control of it).
  • Teleporters and Transporters: What they find in the hidden redoubt beyond the Cerberus fog defense. It's later revealed they provide the ability to Time Travel as well.
  • True Companions: Although Anyone Can Die the more permanent Companions are:
  • Volcano Lair: Wizard Island is home to an elaborate underground research base filled with inbred mutant scientists. It is a remnant from before the nuclear holocaust and is filled with decaying tech and insane scientists.
  • Weaponized Car: The War Wagons (War Wags for short) and the assault buggies feature numerous machine guns and even mortars in some cases.
  • Wretched Hive: Mocsin, and many other towns on the eastern seaboard. Many towns and villages frequently fall under this description as the towns are at the whim of the rulers and law often comes from the barrel of a gun or point of a blade.
  • Young Gun: Jak Lauren, who's fifteen when we first meet him. Various other characters start their careers as Blasters or Sec Men when they are young, such as Ryan Cawdor when he first became an outlaw.
  • Vulnerable Convoy: Zigzagged with the Trader's convoy, which is attacked by mutant marauders who assume his reputation is exaggerated. They turn out to be very, very wrong. Unfortunately the entire convoy is then taken out by nerve gas when they stop to trade at Mocsin.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Mutants are discriminated against and subject to pograms. Even Ryan lets some prejudice slip through on one occasion; Krysty Wroth is not amused.