8 out of 10
A post-apocalyptic audio book / drama packed with steel-jacketed entertainment for your inner libertarian.
Deathlands #73: Labyrinth
2006 The Cutting Corporation
Directed by Richard Rohan
Starring: Richard Rohan, Terence Aselford, Colleen Delany, Delores King Williams, Nanette Savard, Casey Jones, Ken Jackson, Karen Carbone and David Coin.
Availability: In print. (Audio CD, MP3 CD, WMA download)
Approximate running time: 8 hours
Try before you buy: sample available at http://www.graphicaudio.net/p-82-73-labyrinth.aspx
Rated Mature by the publisher for graphic violence.
Although Deathlands titles often contain graphic sex scenes, Labyrinth does not.
The post-apocalyptic genre draws its power from making the familiar strange. Half the interest comes from seeing how social mores and lifeways would be transformed by a (typically nuclear) holocaust. There?s a Teddy Roosevelt / Robert E. Howard sense of stripping away civilization to reveal a rougher but more authentic, usually hyper-masculine, core. What emerges from the ashes may be broken, but it has primal honesty lost to our world of comfort and appearances. It?s a fantasy with a dubious pedigree, with roots in Cold War anti-Communist paranoia and the potential racism and sexism attending any Wild West vision. In knowing hands, though, these unfortunate legacies can be navigated and compelling tales can be told.
Compared to straight sci-fi and fantasy, there haven?t been many post-apocalypse audio dramas. A few stand out, including John Reed?s 1981 adaptation of A Canticle for Leibowitz, Darker Projects? more recent (and sadly seldom updated) amateur serial Alive Inside (http://www.darkerprojects.com/aliveinside.html), and CBC?s unreleased Adventures of Apocalypse Al by J. Michael Straczynski (http://www.sffaudio.com/2007/07/commentary-radio-drama-from-j-michael.html.) But with almost seventy 6 to 8 hour episodes in release and more on the way, it?s hard to top Graphic Audio?s Deathlands for sheer scope and ambition.
Deathlands is a post-apocalyptic serial penned by ?James Axler?, the collective pseudonym of several authors. Rather than adapt Axler?s novels into tighter dramatic scripts, Graphic Audio performs the unabridged novels verbatim as plays. The results sound like audio drama but move at the slower pace of an audio book. Adjusting to this novelistic tempo takes time, but is well worth the effort: these are the most effective fusions of audio drama and book I?ve heard. The Deathlands releases have casts, a cinematic musical score, and elaborate sound effects. (Often, when gruesome wounds are inflicted, ludicrously elaborate. Who else would use sound effects to depict a bullet?s violent passage through human flesh and bone ? as heard from the bullet?s perspective?) Although Graphic Audio titles feature heavy narration, unlike other audio drama/book attempts (Listening Library?s stilted ?Words take Wing? titles, Yuri Rasovsky?s Jurgen) they wisely do not follow actors? dialogue with the narrator intoning ?said Ryan?, ?hissed Playvik?, ?Mildred said stubbornly?, etc. A good example I wish more audio book / drama directors would follow.
The Deathlands series concerns a band of survivalists wandering post-nuclear America. Deathlands is pulp, and as per pulp convention characters are kept familiar and simple. Leading man Ryan Cawdor is a tough as nails warrior sporting an eye-patch and a wicked blade. Think Mad Max, Roland Deschaine, or Snake Plissken. His companions largely consist of stock types, such as the antiquated, wise old scholar and the beautiful love interest who taps into the power of the Earth Mother. Graphic Audio?s repertory cast play their Deathlands roles so well, though, that the characters rarely sound as two-dimensional as they are. Richard Rohan?s versatile voice becomes absolutely chameleonic when he adopts Ryan?s direct, hard-bitten persona. Terence Aselford injects just the right measure of grizzled humor into gunsmith J.B. Dix, and Colleen Delany leavens grit with poise as Ryan?s lover, the mystic Krysty Wroth.
Labyrinth is a hybrid of the story type Stephen King calls ?the strange town? and Aliens-style survival horror. The tale begins when Ryan and his band discover the idyllic town of Little Pueblo in the canyons of New Mexico. Desperate for food and water, they interrupt a local gathering inside an abandoned theater. The townsfolk consist of wealthy alpha male ?Pilgrims?, poor beta male laborers, and female slaves who are bought and sold like cattle. Under the guiding hand of spiritual leader Playvik, they follow the polygamous cult of ?Bob and Enid?. The cult is a blunt satire of patriarchal, fundamentalist religion, an insane fa?ade erected to mask the darker reality lurking within a nearby dam. Sadly, while Labyrinth was recorded in 2006, current events in Texas make this aspect of the story seem very topical. There is even a substantial sub-plot that involves rescuing an under-aged pregnant teen and liberating her from this oppressive male-dominated system.
Overwhelmed by the cult?s superior numbers, Cawdor?s group is soon divided: Most escape to an ancient laboratory complex, but Ryan and J.B. are caught and offered as sacrifices to the ?demons? of the dam. Inside the lab Dr. Mildred Wyeth (Delores King Williams) examines evidence to unravel the mystery of the dam, providing exposition on the town and its background. I enjoyed Mildred?s investigation, but I wish the writer hadn?t leaned so heavily on her convenient knowledge of everything under the sun. After awhile she starts to seem less like an informed character and more like an all-too convenient expository device for an author in a hurry. Still, a smart, three-dimensional black female character in men?s pulp fantasy ? how often do you get that? Mildred is a strong character but never becomes the stereotypical ?strong black woman?, and her speech is mercifully free of the heavy-handed blaxploitation slang white writers often use. She doesn?t say ?you go girl? when talking to a female ally, or hoot ?that?s what I?m talking about!? after she aces a foe.
Meanwhile, inside the dam Ryan and J.B.?s struggle to survive the demons? predation provides horror-movie tension and gruesome thrills.
Congratulations ? it?s an it.
Any Aliens-style adventure ultimately stands or falls on its monsters. Labyrinth?s demons are gruesome enough, but not particularly novel save in one respect: speed. Endowed with the reaction time and agility of fleas, the man-sized demons? ability to maneuver faster than thought makes them an intimidating tactical challenge. Deathlands routinely offers up an NRA-lover?s dream of gun fetishism, but the demons? incredible velocity makes conventional weaponry all but useless here. Good sound design gives these non-verbal creatures frightening presence. Chittering, burrowing, or flying past in a blur of motion, they sound uncanny and ruthlessly efficient. My only criticism would be consistency: sometimes sound effects underscore narration of the demons? actions, sometimes not. It?s an odd shift between cinematic and straight audio book styles that could have been better handled.
Labyrinth succeeds in reinvigorating a long running series with genuinely fresh antagonists. Hopelessly outclassed, Ryan?s band is forced to rely on their wits and sheer luck. Aside from Dr. Wyeth?s clunky exposition, if Labyrinth has one fault it?s that it is too long to sustain its break-neck pace. On the other hand, that length turns what could have been a moment?s escapism into an immersive epic. And after experiencing the brutal truth of the Deathlands you may not want to hurry back to your boring, civilized life.
Next week: A return to German gothic with a review of a new audio book production of the Grusel-krimi that started it all, Larry Brent #1: Das Grauen Schleicht durch Bonnard’s Haus. (Larry Brent #1: Horror Creeps through Bonnard’s House.)