A slim, rough-and-tumble volume, Roger Zelazny's feisty SF thriller Damnation
Alley (Berkley; 1969; out-of-print) would've made a great premise for B-movie
maven Roger Corman: a skuzzy and violent biker named Hell Tanner is picked to
drive across the post WWIII America from Los Angeles to Boston to deliver the
serum to stop a deadly plague. Flying is impossible: the world's skies are terrifying
tornadoes that dump tons of earth and mud (and whatever) randomly. Giant mutant
rats, bats and Gila monsters roam the land, and most cities are either glowing
radioactive craters or plains of fused glass. And let's not forget the marauding
bands of savages, shall we?
Originally attracted to its weird, almost surreal coverwhich actually
has nothing to do with the book, but looks really coolDamnation Alley
was the first Roger Zelazny book I picked up. While I'm not a fan of all
of his books, there is a handful that I return to again and again. In high school,
I devoured the first five books in his "Amber" series, and I've re-read
Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969he was quite prolific
at this time), Jack of Shadows (1971), Roadmarks (1979) and Damnation
Alley at least a couple of times each. Zelazny died in 1995.
Damnation Alley is hardly "hard" SF: by 1969, it was common
knowledge that the massive doses of radiation released by an atomic war would
not cause spiders and bats to grow 500 times their normal size. However, around
the time that Zelazny wrote it, bikers and motorcycle gangs were everywhere:
in the news, in films (dozens of biker flicks were released between 1966 and
1974), and in popular books (Hunter S. Thompson's book on the Hell's Angels
was published in 1966), and gangs like the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club were
attaining mythic stature. I think Zelazny was trying to meld a then-contemporary
phenomenon with a SF plot in a very commercial premise. As a piece of pulp fiction,
then, Damnation Alley is wildly successful.
More than thirty years later, the book is very much a page-turner, an exciting
action story that effectively crosses genre boundaries. In fact, the "blood
& guts" crowd may appreciate this book more than many SF fans will.
The book may be episodic, but Zelazny takes the cheeseball premise and runs
with it at a ferocious pace. You can argue that as a grand master of the SF
genre (the man won six Hugos in his career!), the author should have transposed
the biker theme into a more "serious" SF concept other than the giant-mutant-critters
storyline that filled so many B-movies in the 1950s. But I think it's perfect:
two great B-movie tastes that taste great together-bikers and mutants! (Perhaps
there was something in the air in 1969, but that year also saw the release of
Ray Harryhausen's underrated film The Valley of the Gwangi, which featured
cowboys versus dinosaurs). Because despite the inherent trashiness of both of
these respective genres (bikers, atomic mutants), there have been excellent
films made about each of them, including Roger Corman's The Wild Angels
(1966) and Them! (1953). In the hands of a good writer, no premise is
stupid, and Damnation Alley lucked out by being written by an inkslinging
wiz like Zelazny.
The book starts with a motorcycle vs. police car chase under a mutated tornado
sky, slowing down only to drop a bit of exposition a few times, then roars off
into the wilds of nuclear nightmare America. Tanner's given a car fit for such
a hostile environment: an uber-SUV, equipped with machine guns, flamethrowers
and other deadly amenities. Zelazny's anti-hero is the Last of the Hells Angels,
in jail for murder, being offered a full pardon if he takes the job. A proto-Mad
Max-type, who "once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun," Hell Tanner
is a mean son-of-a-bitch, but the best driver around: the only man who's made
the mail-run to Alberqueque, he also claims to have been as far as the "Missus
Hip." (And "Hell" is not a nickname-in a great bit of tossed
off dialog, Tanner explains that when the nurse asked his father for a name
for his seventh child, the old man said "Hell!" and split, never to
be seen again.)
Originally a novella, the author expanded Damnation Alley by adding
interstitial quasi-Gothic scenes of Boston descending into death and madness.
Zelazny has remarked that he really doesn't like these scenes; that he just
added them to pad out the novella. While they might slow down the out-of-control
action occasionally, I feel they add weight and a sense of urgency to Hell Tanner's
mission. No longer an abstract "Man Against Nature Fight for Survival,"
the story becomes the greater mission of Saving The World.
Meanwhile, during his drive through the Alley, Tanner finds himself thinking
more and more about Brady, the man who brought the message about the plague
(and the plea for the serum) to Los Angeles. The first man to cross Damnation
Alley (what the survivors call the wasteland between the coasts), Brady died
from his injuries soon after arriving, and only left scattered, fevered descriptions
of the horrors on the road. When Tanner is finally alone (the other drivers
having been killed or injured), the reminiscences grow spooky, with Tanner almost
feeling challenged by Brady's ghost. When this is intercut with the scenes of
desperation in Boston, there's an even deeper resonance to the endeavor, an
indication that the vicious biker might be doing something to save his soul.
Zelazny gives a heavily camouflaged hint that Tanner might be more than a beast
early on: Rather than let his brother (who is also a naturally gifted driver)
steer one of the cars to Bostona trip Tanner has no illusions about certainly
being fatalhe beats up his brother and kicks his ribs in. It's brutal
and horrible, but it's the only way Tanner knows of how to save his little brother's
life. A pulp novel doesn't have to be all style and no substance.
Like Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, the novel takes place enough
in the post-nuclear war period that our protagonist is truly of a unique post-war
generation: kids who grew up never knowing a pre-nuked civilization, but with
enough of that civilization's detritus and trappings for them to scrap up an
inkling of what they've been cheated out of terribly.
Unlike A Boy and His Dog, when Damnation Alley was made into
a movie, the filmmakers strayed far from the source materialand screwed
things up royally. When director L.Q. Jones made the film of A Boy and His
Dog in 1975, he was smart enough to know that there was no way to top Ellison's
crackling dialog, and hardly changed a word. In fact, I think that Jones actually
improves on Ellison in his depiction of the underground city of Topeka. While
I understand the parody of Squaresville Ellison's trying to present, but I just
don't feel it. Visually and thematically, I connected more with Jones' Richard-Nixon-Reads-Samuel-Beckett-on-LSD
presentation of Topeka.
Made, I think, to cash in on the popularity of "sigh-fi movies" brought
on by the monstro-success of Star Wars, Damnation Alley (1977)
was put together sloppily by people with little understanding for the action-movie/SF
genres. The flick is poorly paced, the dialog is atrocious, the movie is not
even fun in that "it's so bad it's good" way. You watch actor Paul
Winfield get devoured by 10-inch long cockroaches and you yawn. Zelazny's plot,
except for travelling across a devastated America, is completely jettisoned,
and the main character is changed from biker trash Hell Tanner to clean-cut
Air Force Captain Tanner, stiffly played by a bland Jan-Michael Vincent. And
the movie's Tanner is one of the guys who launched the missiles in the first
place! The protagonist has been changed from the new breed of existential /
nihilist human that grew up in the aftermath of the Day of Fire to the guy who
pushed the button! It's a thematic change that's insulting.
But something good comes out of Damnation Alley the movie, I guess.
The big tank / truck they drive, called the "Landmaster" in the film,
went on to have an extended cameo in an episode of Chris Eliott's late, lamented
sitcom Get A Life. The vehicle "played" Paperboy 2000, the
automated paper-delivery machine that threatened Chris' job and eventually went
haywire. (FYI: Aside from influencing Chris Eliott's cult comedy (albeit in
a roundabout way), Zelazny's book likewise inspired a song by proto-metal /
psychedelic band Hawkind... also called "Damnation Alley.")