Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Damnation Alley

He raised his goggles and looked at the world through crap-coloured glasses, which was pretty much the way he looked at it without them, too.

One of my favourite books as a kid was Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, a kind of post-apocalypse Wages Of Fear or Dirty Dozen, first published in the UK in 1971.
Some years after World War 4, America is a bombed out shell, the survivors huddled into the remains of California and Boston with 3000 miles of radioactive, mutant-infested wasteland between them, dubbed Damnation Alley.
A plague strikes Boston, San Diego has the serum, and somebody has to get through the Alley to deliver it safely.

That man is Hell Tanner, the last of the biker angels, a scumbag who is: 'The lowest, most reprehensible human being' who 'once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun.'
Hell ( so named 'cos when his father first saw him as a baby, uttered one word: 'Hell!' and left ) is granted a pardon for his many crimes in return for taking the trip in one of two giant Landmaster vehicles.

If all this sounds more than a little familiar, well take your pick. Tanner went on to inspire further End Of The World anti-heroes such as Snake Plissken and Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer.

As well as the direct rip-off that was Judge Dredd epic The Cursed Earth, which has the exact same plot and vehicles, but with Dredd teaming up with a punk version of Tanner named Spikes Harvey Rotten.

Damnation Alley was also adapted into a not particularly edifying movie, with Hell being sanitized into army rebel Jake Tanner, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, alongside George Peppard, who equally shares little but his name with the character from the book.

The film also boasts incredibly bad special effects ( even for the '70's ), Peppard uttering the immortal line 'This whole town is infested by Killer Cockroaches!' and a ludicrous ending, where Tanner finally reaches Boston, which doesn't seem to have been affected one iota by the apocalypse, and is full of nothing but white people. Hmm...

Although fast paced, the novel itself doesn't have quite as much action as you would like, being actually more of a character study of a rat bastard who nevertheless retains some small sliver of humanity. For instance, Hell cripples his younger brother, who also volunteered, to get him out of the running, knowing that the kid is too soft to make it through the Alley alive.
I also like the section where he falls in with a God fearing, farming family and is forced to pretend to be a decent human being to get their help and continue his odyssey.

But Damnation Alley is such a perfect set-up for a story, and the book such an enjoyable, fast read, I'm always surprised no one's tried to put Hell Tanner into comics, either by direct adaptation or giving him new adventures. But then, I'm equally puzzled as to why no one's ever tried to remake the movie, and do it properly.

The following spring, on the day of it's unveiling, when it was discovered that someone had scrawled obscene words on the statue of Hell Tanner, no one thought to ask the logical candidate why he had done it, and the next day it was too late, because he had cut out without leaving a forwarding address.


  1. I really like the book, too.
    And I have to admit, I kind of have a soft spot for the movie - just because I saw it an impressionable, early age (about 10) when it was playing in theaters as a double feature with Bakshi's Wizards (a heavy dose of '70s post-apocalyptica). Yeah, it's a objectively a piece of crap, but I can't say I hate it...

    However, I agree with you that Zelazny's book really merits a new and more faithful film adaptation.

  2. I forgive the movie a lot, Edo, as I like the book so much, and you can't really hate it, but it is quite poor. Definitely needs a remake...

  3. I first heard of this book through the excellent Hawkwind song of the same name from the Quark Strangeness & Charm lp. It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally read it in 2 sittings on PDF while looking after my then 2 year old while he was watching In The Night Garden at 5am. Not a particularly condusive environment but I wish I had read it as a kid alongside the Hells Angels, Skinhead and horror stuff I read in the 70's. Some nice covers here that I hadn't seen before and yeah, it would be a great vehicle, ahem, for a comic adaption.