The Dead Lands

A Novel


By Benjamin Percy

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In Benjamin Percy’s new thriller, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders.

Then a rider comes from the wasteland beyond its walls. She reports on the outside world: west of the Cascades, rain falls, crops grow, civilization thrives. But there is danger too: the rising power of an army that pillages and enslaves every community they happen upon.

Against the wishes of the Sanctuary, a small group sets out in secrecy. Led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark, they hope to expand their infant nation, and to reunite the States. But the Sanctuary will not allow them to escape without a fight.


Part I

All stories are in conversation with other stories.

—Neil Gaiman


SHE KNOWS THERE IS something wrong with the baby. She has known from the very beginning. First there was the nausea that left her bedridden for weeks, dizzy and barely able to eat, chewing on cucumbers, filling up on springwater. Then the surges in temper, the blackening headaches. And finally a stillness inside her when there should have been movement—a fluttering, like the tail of a trout; that’s what her friends told her—so that she would twist her body and prod her belly until the child readjusted itself, assuring her it was there, it was alive.

They live in a windowless cabin high in the mountains. Others live not far away, some near a spring-fed stream, others cut back in the woods. Together they form a village of sorts, happily isolated, wary of outsiders and change, fearful of the stories told by their elders, stories of an illness that causes a bloody cough and blistering fevers, stories of missiles raining from the sky and cratering the earth, stories of scavengers with meaty breath and teeth filed into points.

Outside the snow is knee-deep. Before long it will be taller than her husband, taller than the cabin, and every day they will need to shovel a wide passage from their door in case they should be trapped, shrouded.

Sometimes she dreams the child is not a child. It is a grub, fat and white and segmented, with black eyes. It is a beast with tiny yellow fangs and tiny yellow claws, its body covered in fur as sleek as an otter’s. Or maybe it is a nothing, a dark spirit, a possessed vapor, and her body the house it haunts.

So she is relieved when she gives the final push and feels a tear, a gush, an emptying—and then the midwife smiles and coos and says, “There now.” She cuts the cord with a knife. She carries the child to the table and wipes it clean with a rag.

Juliana bunches towels between her legs and watches the child through heavy-lidded eyes. Everything is fine. Everything will turn out all right after all.

Then she notices something. The absence of something. The baby is not crying. The baby has not made a sound. The midwife stands over it, the red rag in her hand like a crushed rose.

“What’s the matter? Is it alive? It’s alive, isn’t it?”

The midwife nods.

“Is it all right?”

The midwife looks at her, looks at the baby, with a mouth that quivers with words she cannot express.

“What is it? A boy?”

“A girl.”

“What’s wrong?”

Her voice comes out a choked whisper when she says, “Her eyes.” She drapes a blanket around the child and hurries to the bed in a rush to be rid of it.

Juliana accepts the child and tears away the wrappings. Her face—splotchy and wrinkled and coned from birth—looks like any baby’s face. But her eyes—they are wide open, seemingly lidless, with no whiteness to them, all pupil, no iris, as if splashed full of ink.

The midwife thumbs down the baby’s chin and plays its mouth along her nipple, while Juliana massages her breast and brings from it a thick, yellowish bead of colostrum. The baby nods toward the taste but will not latch on. She keeps pulling away to stare at Juliana. It may be a trick of the light—the cabin so dim—but the baby’s large eyes appear somehow sorrowful. Juliana struggles to hold the baby’s head in place. She does not believe the baby should be strong enough to do so, but she is, arching her back and twisting her head to study Juliana’s face.

*  *  *

Robert cannot take the sound of her screams. Or the sight of his wife writhing naked in pain. He tries to help at first, packing snowballs to rub along her wrists and ankles and forehead, but he cannot stop staring at her belly, which seems somehow separate from her, the skin so tight it appears ready to split, almost purple in color, with a white line running down its middle. He thinks he sees shapes in it, what look like hands, a face pressing against the skin, the baby trying to claw or chew its way out.

So he pulls on his boots and doeskin jacket and escapes outside. Snow falls and accumulates on his shoulders when he paces. He is a simple man who pleasures in small things, the song of a nuthatch, the last flare of sunlight on the horizon before night rushes in, the taste of rare lamb and oak-aged whiskey. His wife confuses him. She is a woman of many moods, rarely steady in her feeling, weeping when she says she loves him and draws him into a hug, weeping when she laments him and hurls a dish at the wall. He has learned, when her anger spikes, not to say anything. Not saying anything is the best medicine for their marriage. And making himself scarce. After one of her spells—that’s what she calls them, as if they were dark magic—he might chop wood or weed their garden or wander around the bend to his nearest neighbor, Colson, for a game of cards or dice.

He hears another cry from inside—the loudest yet and the worst sound imaginable, like an animal dying, falling from a cliff or rent in half by an ax—and he can only hope that the baby is here, that this is the end.

The snow is thick—and his mind distracted—so he does not look east, where through the falling snow he might notice a faint orange glow, his neighbor’s cabin burning. And when he paces, the snow creaks beneath his boots, so he does not hear the hushed passage of the two men clambering up the hill toward him.

They appear as beasts, robed in bearskins, the hollowed heads of which rest atop their own, the snouts like toothed visors that throw a shadow over their faces.

They run a few paces, their boots splashing up snow, and then crouch down. Run and then crouch. In this way they progress up the hillside, threading through trees, trampling icy bushes, plunging over frosted logs. Then they duck down and scuttle close and lift their heads slowly over a lip of snow to observe him pacing and muttering—and then, with a white, sparkling explosion, they rush forward.

At first, they try to wrestle him down, shoving him, trying to kick out his legs, but he puts up enough of a fight that they stop trying and jab a knife into his stomach and then drag it across his neck. They hold him down in the snow until he bleeds out into a red slushy puddle, until his body stops struggling.

*  *  *

When the door first crashes inward, Juliana is fatigued enough by the labor and distracted enough by the child that she does not scream. She only thinks, How strange, a bear. Hurrying out of the night and into the cabin. Shaggy and caked with snow and thudding across the floorboards.

It pauses near the fire, the snow melting in the heat, steaming off its fur—and only then does she see the bearded man beneath the skins, the light brightening his eyes into orange coals. In one hand he grips a knife. Its metal is bloodied—a red patina with ice crystals flowering from it.

The midwife edges her way along the far wall and tries to dart past him, and he lets her—but just before she reaches the doorway, another bear-suited man steps through and seizes her and drags her into the night, her screams muffled by the snow.

The first man starts toward Juliana. She is naked. She is physically ruined. She is beyond exhausted after eight hours of contractions, two hours of hard labor. But still, she tries to fight him. She nestles the baby into a blanket on the bed, then lurches her body to the edge of the mattress, reaching for the rifle her husband keeps there.

The man dulls her with a fist to the temple. A momentary hush falls over the world, and her vision narrows. She notices the lantern flickering on her night table. She notices a knot, like an eye, peering down from one of the ceiling’s crossbeams. She notices the skis and poles hanging from the wall, the wedding afghan her oma knitted draped over a rocking chair. Then the world widens and comes crashing into motion again and she realizes she is no longer in her bed. The man is dragging her across the floor, toward the door, his hand a crushing manacle around her wrist.

She cannot walk, though she tries. Her legs stumble and collapse beneath her. Her knees thud the grooves; her feet needle with splinters. Her belly feels carved out by a hot spoon, but the anger boiling inside her gives her strength. She cries out and throws back her body, battling his grip.

He strikes her again, knocking the last bit of willfulness from her body, and then mummies her in a blanket and hefts her over his shoulder.

She does not scream, My baby, though she knows she ought to. She only looks back to the bed, where the child lies in a nest of blankets stained with her blood and embryonic fluid, watching her curiously with eyes as black as the night that soon envelops her.

Chapter 1

THE WALL IS A constant in Simon’s life, everywhere he looks, impossible to miss. Yet it is as common as dust, as heat, as the sun’s blazing path across the sky, and it is easy to go days, weeks, without noticing it. It is of uneven height but at its tallest point reaches a hundred feet from the ground. In some places it is made from plaster and mortared stone, and in others, heaps of metal, the many-colored cars of another time, crushed and welded together into massive bricks that bleed rust when it rains.

There are those who guard the wall, who every day climb ropes and rebar ladders to position themselves as sentries upon its flat top, wide enough for ten men to walk abreast. They carry knives at their sides and bows on their backs. They wear wide-rimmed brown hats. Their skin is sunburned and sand scoured and their eyes pale and pocketed from the dark-glassed goggles they wear while staring into the wastes surrounding them. From the ground, they appear specks, no bigger than birds.

There is life inside the wall. There is death outside the wall. That is what they, the citizens of the Sanctuary, have been told over the 150 years since it was erected. Here, in what was once downtown St. Louis, they have laws, elections, currency, farms, wells, markets, a hospital, a prison, even a museum that offers the vestiges of the lost world. But outside—in the Dead Lands—in the sun-washed sandy reaches of the desert, among the dried wigs of sagebrush, the pines that twist upward like tormented souls, the sunken grocery stores and corroded gas pumps and crumbling weed-choked subdivisions, there are nightmares. And now someone is on the way to face the nightmares alone.

He can hear the drumbeats of the death parade echoing through the Sanctuary. A few minutes ago the sun sank below the wall. Twilight is approaching, the end of the day and the end of a life, the traditional time for the police to escort their worst offenders to the execution site—through the gates, beyond the wall, to the altar.

Shadows drape the streets, but the last light still flames the tops of the highest buildings. The Dome—the home of the mayor, once the capitol building—glows like a half-moon against the paling sky.

Simon hurries to the gates. Not because he cares who has been sentenced to die, and not because he wants to witness the spectacle of the parade, but because others do. The roads and pathways there will be full of people. Distracted people. Distracted people who won’t notice a hand slipping into their purse or pocket.

He crosses a wooden bridge that spans a sewage canal. He zigzags through a garden of agave, its serrated leaves biting at his ankles. Sotol and prickly pear and date palms and even a few gnarled cherry trees. He pauses briefly to pluck a handful of fruit and pop them into his mouth before starting on his way again. The cherries are shrunken and bitter and he sucks on them while darting down an alley busy with trash and rats and lean-tos and a VW minibus that has been converted to a shelter. This leads him to the central avenue, a wide, cobblestoned thoroughfare jammed with people. Some wear burlap and cotton and wool stitched from fresh materials. Some wear the leftovers of the world before—hoodies, jerseys, jeans, sneakers, boots—decayed polyester and threadbare denim patched with leather or plastic squares. Some paint their lips and their eyelids. Some wear necklaces that rattle with teeth and keys and bottle caps. Many are deformed, with shrunken arms or six-fingered hands or ears that look like babies’ fists or slitted noses or blind white eyes. Many are tumored and blotched with burns and cancers from the sun. Many of the men have beards and many of the women long braids with feathers nested in them. Aside from the occasional bright flare of orange or red or yellow, most of what they wear is the color of stone and sand, shades of gray and brown. They all wear hats. And all of their mouths are raw and chapped from lack of water.

Simon spits out the cherries’ stones and joins them. He is short and slender for his age, so he is able to slip through the crush of bodies. He is good at this, sneaking his way through things—his body through buildings, his hands into pockets and drawers. His mousy hair and narrow face make him unnoticeable, forgettable, which suits him perfectly.

A jingle cart rolls by, dragged by a man with a mossy beard that reaches his waist. Dust rises in a cloud behind him, the dust that is everywhere. The cart—a welded collection of rusted license plates anchored to two different-size wheels—is covered with tiny bells that chime at every rut in the road. The man calls out his wares, medicines and candies, medicines and candies. No one pays him any attention. All eyes are on the procession worming its way down the avenue.

The deputies are dressed in black—broad-rimmed black hats, black shirts with a star on the breast tucked into black jeans tucked into black boots with sharp silver tips—their standard uniform. They wear holsters—for machetes, not for guns, since all firearms were long ago outlawed in the Sanctuary.

The first man carries a drum, a yellow hide stretched across a broad round frame. A skull is painted across its face and he slams a mallet against it. He walks in rhythm to the beat, every other step intoned by a deep, hollow bong. He is followed by two women with torches, the smoke trailing behind them, threading together in a black cloud that hangs over their prisoner. He is obscured by the smoke and by the crowd. He hunches over, his hair masking his face, his wrists and ankles bound by chains that rattle with his every trudging step. He is followed by two more deputies, who shove him along whenever he slows.

This is early summer. The day was as hot as an oven and twilight has brought little relief. Simon tries to breathe through his mouth. The odor of so many unwashed bodies unsettles his stomach. He jostles, trips, tickles, blows in an ear, making people move, and when they move, he takes advantage of their momentum and distraction and filches coins from pockets. Everyone’s clothes are coated with dust, so that when they move little puffs rise off them. A girl watches him sneak a loose ring off a woman’s pinky. She is clutching a naked plastic doll with no eyes and half a head of hair. He smiles at her and brings a finger to his lips and she smiles back and hides behind her father’s leg.

Everyone peers over each other’s shoulders, trying to glimpse the prisoner. The drum sounds—again and again—and over its tolling a voice calls out loudly for them to move aside, move along. The crowd does as the man says, separating and then converging around the deputies once they pass by.

The voice belongs to Rickett Slade, their sheriff. He wears the same uniform as his officers. He is a massive man, thickset, with broad shoulders, a head like a pocked boulder, and hands the size and texture of rough pine planks. His eyes are too close together and lost beneath baggy folds of flesh. What little hair he has ringing his head is as pale and downy as corn silk. “Make way,” he says. “Make way for the dead man who walks.”

Simon slips a bracelet off a wrist, unclasps a necklace, some made of gold, some made of plastic, all worth something, even if only a trade at the bazaar, a brick of cheese, a loaf of bread. His pockets are nearly full and he has pushed his way to the front of the crowd when he looks up and sees the prisoner, really notices him for the first time. The jowly cheeks. The nose and cheeks brightly filamented with capillaries. The same mousy brown hair as his own. It is a face he recognizes. It is a face others in the crowd recognize, several of them whispering his name, Samuel.

His father.

Simon is familiar with death. It is impossible not to be in the Sanctuary. He has witnessed the lashings at the whipping posts. He has dodged the knives that flash in the streets and bars. He has seen his pale-skinned, rib-slatted mother laid out on a slab of stone with her breasts scarred over, both removed, though not in time to stop the tumors bulging like toads from the glands beneath her neck. But that doesn’t stop him from feeling a dagger jab of dread. His father is being marched to his death.

His father is a drunk, and when he is drunk he makes loud pronouncements about everything from the unfairness of the rations to the foolishness of their new mayor. He often spirals into dark moods that round his hands into fists, sharpen his words into blades. For this reason, the two of them haven’t spoken much over the past year, ever since Simon took to the streets.

There was a time when they used to get along—when his father would wrestle with him or tell scary stories or play Billy Joel and Beatles songs on his guitar, when they would work together on the small garden that grew in their windowsill boxes. That was before Simon’s mother died, before his father tried to purify his grief with gallons and gallons of tequila. On more than one occasion, after getting slapped across the face, knocked to the ground, or shoved in a closet, Simon wished him dead. Now the wish will come true and he wishes he could take it back.

Beyond the wall, hairless sand wolves roam with eyes as yellow as candle flame. There are giant spiders, with trapdoors netted over and dusted with sand. Snakes longer and wider than any man’s arm, with fangs that can pierce leather. Big cats with claws that can shred metal like paper. Some say the flu—the cough and fever that brought about the ruin of the world—still hides in the throats of caves, in the closets of old buildings, riding the breeze like the spores of some black flower that will take root in your lungs, though most believe it perished alongside everything else.

A ranger once told Simon about a dead deer, found in the outlying forest, that looked as though it had been peeled open and turned inside out. The same fate he met a few weeks later, his head torn off and his belly emptied and his limbs gnashed down to bones. Beyond the wall, wildness took over, things with big claws and sacs of poison lay in wait. This—Simon can hear in the voices that tremble with fear and sadistic anticipation—is what awaits his father.

People begin to cry out and pull back, mobbing away from the gates, knowing they’ll soon open, afraid of what might come hurrying out of the twilight. The sharp, reedy call of a bone whistle precedes the steel arm being lifted from its hangers. The double doors—made from logs reinforced with metal—are heaved open and the deputies continue into the gloom. They will take his father to the altar in the woods, a stone platform to which he will be chained.

Some people linger with ghoulish fascination, while others disperse, off to pursue whatever business remains for them this evening. The farmers in the stables milking heifers, butchering pigs. The tailors shearing sheep and spinning wool into yarn or treating the hides of animals with chemicals that bleach their hands a cancerous yellow. The tattooists inking designs onto arms and necks and faces. The whores spreading their legs on flea-specked mattresses. The bartenders filling tumblers full of eye-watering, throat-burning liquor. The jingle carts and pharmacists hawking snake poison and medicinal jellies and pills for coughs, kidney stones, genital infections. The vendors in the old warehouse selling clothes, pottery, tools, fruit, charred meat on a stick, whatever scraps the rangers bring back from their excursions beyond the wall: cracked and faded Happy Meal toys, dented espresso machines, football helmets with rotted-out padding, shattered tablets, laptops with sand spilling out of their keyboards. They are eager to return to normalcy—opening a window, tying a shoe—while his father will be torn to pieces.

Simon remains fixed in place. His eyes are on the wall. As if it has betrayed him. Betrayed his father. There are those whose jobs concern mending and fortifying the wall. That was his father’s trade. His arms were crosshatched with cuts and his hands colored with bruises and caked with cement. He broke his leg once, after a fall from the upper reaches of the wall, and he healed oddly so that he seemed to drag himself about more than walk. And now the man who spent his life repairing and making fast the thing that holds the danger outside is now the man thrust from its safety.

*  *  *

The bird perches on the wall. It observes the prisoner hauled away, the crowd scattering, and then, with a creaking snap of its wings, it takes flight. It appears to be an owl, though not like any other in the world, made of metal and only a little larger than a man’s fist.

Torches flare up all around the Sanctuary to fight the intruding night, and the owl’s bronze feathers catch the light brightly when it flies from the wall, then over the gardens, the stables, the ropes of smoke that rise from chimneys and forges and ovens, the twisting streets busy with carts and dogs and bodies that stumble out of doorways. The wind blows cinders and dried bits of grass up into dust devils, and the owl blasts through them.

The skyscrapers and high-rises needle upward from the center of the Sanctuary—Old Town, they call it—and the mechanical owl darts between the canyons of them now. Some of them still have windows, but most are open-air, so that they appear like a vast and rotting honeycomb inside which people crouch like brown grubs.

The owl’s wings whirr. Gears snap and tick beneath its breast. Within its glass eyes, an aperture contracts or expands depending on whether the owl casts its gaze at light or shadow.

The remains of downtown St. Louis have been built over and repurposed to the degree that someone who stepped across the centuries would not recognize one for the other, everything sunken and leaning and crumbling and patched together in a way that appears accidental, the city covered with a dusty skin and seeming in this way and many others a dying thing, its windows and archways hollowed eyes, its streets curving yellowed arteries, its buildings haggard bones, with its footsteps and hammer strokes and slammed doors like the beating of an arrhythmic heart and the many swarming bodies like black mites feeding on whatever might be scrapped, salvaged.

Turbines spike the tops of many buildings. They are made from rescued metal and they creak and groan and spin rustily in the wind that never stops blowing. They feed into unreliable wiring that snakes through some of the buildings so that lights sputter on and off and empty sockets burn red and sometimes flare into fires. And the lives of the people here are energized in a similar manner—frayed and sizzling, capable at any given moment of burning out.

The signs are still there—Supercuts, Subway, McDonald’s, Curves, Chili’s, Chipotle, LensCrafters—though they are hard to spot, their colored plastic fractured and lichen spotted and dulled to the yellowy shade of an old man’s teeth.

What was once a sandwich shop is now a blacksmith and welding studio. From its doorway steps a man who holds a clamp that grips a red-hot square of metal—maybe a door hinge or hoe blade—and he dunks it into a bucket of horse piss and follows the steam trailing upward and through it sees the owl blur overhead like a comet.

What was once a salon is now a dentist’s office. In the corner a dryer chair sits like a dead astronaut. The studs grimace through the places where the drywall has rotted away. Near the open window, a dentist peers into a mouth of butter-colored teeth, one of them black, and, just when he secures it with his pliers, the owl flashes past his shop and he startles backward with the tooth uprooted and his patient screaming in his chair.

On a balcony an old woman lounges in a threadbare lawn chair that nearly sinks her bottom to the ground. She wears stockings that are wrinkled at the knees and rotted through to reveal her bony ankles. Her feet are stuffed into an ancient pair of laceless Nikes, the soles as hard as concrete. She drinks foul tea from a dented thermos. Above her hangs a wind chime of old cell phones that clatter in the breeze. When the owl buzzes by her, she shrieks and the thermos falls thirty feet before clanging and splattering the street below.

She knows whom the owl belongs to. They all do. And they fear it as they fear him.

The museum—once city hall—is one of the grandest buildings in the Sanctuary, six stories high, with a vaulted red-slate roof and marble floors and walls made of sandstone. It has the dark-​windowed, stained-stone grandeur of a haunted mansion. Swallows squawk and scatter where they appear as scratches against the purple-black expanse of sky. The owl skitters to a stop on one of the upper windowsills. It approaches the glass pane and taps its beak.

In the street below, a few people pause to point at and whisper about the owl. “Magic,” some say. “Freak,” others say.


  • "Benjamin Percy's THE DEAD LANDS is a case of wonderful writing and compulsive reading. You will not come across a finer work of sustained imagination this year. Good God, what a tale. Don't miss it."—Stephen King
  • "THE DEAD LANDS is an ingenious thriller, relentlessly driven by Benjamin Percy's powerful writing."—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
  • "THE DEAD LANDS is a bomb-blast of a novel, casting its tremors in every direction. Benjamin Percy's range grows broader with every book he writes. Here he takes a journey across a cataclysmic future American West, sending his band of seekers, scholars, assassins, and explorers through a landscape as dangerous and surreal as it must have seemed to the original Lewis and Clark. Their adventure, like the novel itself, travels far past the frontier, into the deepest and most thrilling of wildernesses."—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead
  • "This post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark passage is a thrill ride through a nightmare America. THE DEAD LANDS is gorgeous and haunting and full of heart, like some wonderful offspring of The Hobbit, The Road, and Stephen King's Dark Tower series."—James Frey, author of Bright Shiny Morning and Endgame

On Sale
Apr 14, 2015
Page Count
448 pages

Benjamin Percy

About the Author

Benjamin Percy is the author of the novels Red Moon and The Wilding, and two short story collections, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Time, Tin House, and elsewhere. His honors include the Pushcart Prize, an NEA grant, the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and a Whiting Award. Raised in the high desert of central Oregon, he lives in Minnesota.

Learn more about this author