Like The Last Men Alive, this is another story set in a world after a nuclear war. However, whilst that one was set only a few weeks after the “balloon went up”. This one is set around 500 years afterwards! It was published in The Wizard in 1959. When people talk about the DC Thomson “Big Four”, they generally talk about the pre-and-during war years. But The Wizard, Adventure et al were fine, high-quality publications in the 1950’s too! After more than a decade of so-offensive-it-goes-all-the-way-around-and-becomes-funny-again racism on the covers:
The Wizard started to use the covers to promote the exciting stories within:
Or else provide interesting facts. These were usually related (sometimes pretty vaguely – facts about 18th century sailor’s superstitions tied in with a story about modern trainee submariners, for instance!) to one of the stories inside.
(Will the Americans of 2059 remember to publish issue 3 of the Illuminated Quadruple Constellation?).
There was a great variety in the stories too, from the wartime adventures of V for Vengeance – surely a large influence on a certain other story – “Hard” Science Fiction (shortly to become science fact!) of The Ace of Space, and a series of “historicals” set in famous disasters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, most of those are set in the USA.
But on to the story itself. I Lived in the Desperate Days is set in 2492, on the small community of Land End, at the far southwestern corner of an island that, according to legend, was once called Eng, or Brit. Land End is the only fertile part of the island, the rest is made of fused, black rock and ash-like cinder sand, where nothing has grown for centuries. A nearby island called Ire is also made of nothing but this lifeless black rock. The Folk, as the population of Land End are called, number just 400. They have legends which talk of a time when Eng was home to millions of people, as were other lands around the world – though some of them don’t believe that any other land exists, and that Eng and Ire are all alone in The Great Sea.
The main character is called Jordon The Writer, who chronicles the events of the folk, and copies out their few books. He lives in the same house as Silas the Scholar, who teaches children to read and write. He also owns the few books that remain in the world, and Jordon is slowly copying them so there will be a second set, if anything happens. One of the books tells of people called Americans, who had ships that sailed under ice, Jordon thinks it’s an interesting story, but can’t possibly be true.
The first part of the story just gives an introduction to the Folk’s way of life. Their previous harvest was bad, and a harsh winter killed many sheep. Though they number only 400, the “Folk Father”, John Winter, decides that 100 people have to sacrifice themselves by going out into the “barrens”, as they call the melted and destroyed rest of the country. This is really a death sentence, as there’s no way of getting food out there. They draw sticks from a bag – white for life, and black for death! Jordon draws a black stick – though the people due to die are given a week to say goodbye to their families.
Jordon’s friend, Bob Gray, has a small fishing boat, and all of his crew, including the villainous Zeke, are doomed to die. They decide to sail out and catch fish while they still can. Zeke is not happy about being merely one of the crew, but boats are worth their weight in gold, due to a severe shortage of wood, and the Folk Father and his council think Zeke is too irresponsible to have a boat of his own.
They sail out to look for fish, but are caught in a gale and blown close to Ire. Whilst sailing around the coast, looking for a place to land and repair the damaged boat (not to mention bury a dead crewman), they come across a huge “sea monster”, stranded on the rocks. Jordon, from his reading, realises it is a whale, and that it contains many tons of edible meat, which can save the doomed hundred! They also explore Ire a little, and in the meantime Zeke is left with the boat, which he almost loses. The damage takes several days to repair, and when they get back to Land End, they discover the rest of the doomed people have already gone out into the barrens. Bob Gray sails around to a bay further out into the barrens, and follows some tracks. Eventually they bring back around seventy of the hundred sent out to die.
A large operation (by the standards of a community of 370-odd with hardly any boats!) is mounted to go and collect the meat of the whale. While this is going on, Zeke decoys Jordon away from the harbour, and he ends up being left behind!
Jordon spends a night on the coast of Ire, then wanders inland a little way to try and find fresh water. Instead, he falls through a crust of dust into a small cave, apparently once open to the air. At one end, he finds a heavy steel door, though after 500 years it’s so rusty he can push through it with his hands. Inside he finds a room lined with more books than he has seen in his life! There’s also a diary, with the last entry written in 1990. It says that nuclear proliferation had run out of control, and many nations had huge stockpiles of atomic warheads. When World War 3 started, the pulses of radiation from atomic explosions caused these stockpiles to detonate on their own (apparently this is theoretically possible – so real-life bombs are shielded against it). The huge fireballs quite literally melted at least Western Europe, apart from Land’s End. The writer of the diary didn’t know that, of course, his air purifier failed shortly afterwards, and he has long since died and crumbled to dust. The people huddled on Land’s End somehow survived the radioactivity (presumably many of the original ones died, and the few survivors have repopulated the area since), and the events of “the change”, along with details of the pre-war world, all faded into legends. Jordon lights a fire with the dead man’s ragged clothes, fortunately the crew of the fishing boat have come back for him, and spot the smoke. He is taken back to Land End, where Zeke is worried that his trickery will be exposed.
Jordon sails out in Bob Gray’s fishing boat again. His leg was injured when he was a child (this is why he is a “writer”, not a farmer or something), but he can still haul on ropes and nets. Instead of catching fish, they spot something even more valuable – a huge tree! Quickly taking it in tow, they bring it back to Land End. It creates a sensation – if there’s huge trees growing somewhere, then there must be fertile land!
Jordon has been reading more about the old world in his newly-found books. He reads about a man named Christopher Columbus, who, 1000 years earlier, sailed west until he found a huge continent. Jordon comes up with a plan to use the wood in the tree to build a replica of Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, and try to find this continent again. Jordon even builds a model of the ship – but is betrayed by Zeke. Wasting wood is a terrible crime in Land End, and he is sentenced to be banished into the barrens. However, he overhears a conversation between the Folk Father and one of the farmers – a disease which killed many of the sheep the previous winter has come back! Of course, they have no medicines, and probably no medical knowledge beyond the absolute basics.
Jordon goes to sleep, but when he wakes up he finds he has been pardoned, and that the Folk Father has decided they must attempt to build a “Santa Maria II” and find new lands, or the whole human race might perish! The construction of the ship begins, though there is quite a bit of resistance – some of the “Fathers Minor” (who rule under the Folk Father) think there’s no other land in the world, and that stories of a ship a whole seventy feet long must be fictional. When the Folk Father commands every household to give up one blanket (and there’s precious few of those) to make the sails of the ship, there is a minor riot, stirred up by Zeke.
The rioters accidentally knock out the Folk Father with a thrown rock – then sidle away, feeling guilty. They blamed Jordon, rather than him. After they have got over the shock, they riot again, this time trying to tear apart the half-built ship and take the timber away for other uses. Jordon sails out in another fishing boat and finds Bob Gray, who returns in time to stop the riot. He has also found another tree, which will serve for the ship’s masts, and there will be plenty of wood left over for other uses too.
Finally the ship is finished and launched. The crew, with Bob Gray as Captain and Jordon as log-keeper (plus Zeke, because he is “at least good at his work”) have to learn sailing from scratch, and panic when they make a mistake! A sudden squall from the wrong direction brings down part of the rigging, and knocks Bob unconscious. Fortunately Jordon remembers that a ship can be steered using sails alone, if you work them correctly. The second-in-command, a man called Clark, takes command just in time, and the ship avoids being wrecked on the coast of Ire.
Now it’s time for the voyage to really start! Just before they set out, a weird light called “St. Elmo’s Fire” is seen on the mast. Many of the crew think this is a sign of bad luck, and Zeke stirs up a minor mutiny, telling the men that Jordon will bring disaster to the ship. Just as they are about to charge the poop deck, a stowaway – a condemned criminal – is found. Bob grants the man a reprieve, and later he sacrifices himself by swimming under the ship and jamming himself in a hole. He plugs it, but drowns in the process.
The journey goes on, an encounter with waterspouts almost wrecks the ship in mid-ocean, but the spout which sucks them up collapses just in time, though several of the crew are killed. Then they sight land! But it turns out to be a huge floating mass of seaweed and rotten trees. Worse, it’s infested with huge, carnivorous jellyfish! The story doesn’t make it clear if these are creatures mutated by radiation (or, rather, their descendants), or else freaks of evolution produced by the abrupt change in climate caused by the war (tests with fruit flies have shown that ‘random shots’ of evolution happen if their environment is changed drastically – meaning a new species may be created in tens of generations instead of millions, though many more of these ‘random shots’ are useless and fatal). Of course, the story is written by Jordon himself, and for all he knows, Columbus met creatures like this too!
After fighting off the Jellyfish, the crew encounter some more sea monsters, including some kind of sentient seaweed, and a thing which looks like a flying Manta Ray with a spiked, razor-sharp tail. Several more crew members die during these attacks, and the ship suffers a lot of damage, but is still able to limp onwards.
Finally, they sight land, real land! But, to their horror, it’s the same fused, black rock as Eng and Ire are made of. They anchor at this island to repair the ship anyway, though their supplies of fresh water and food are running very low. They also discover the island is infested with giant killer crabs! Jordon, trying to escape from these, accidentally falls into a pool of hot water, which he discovers is also fresh water! The crew also try to eat the crabs, but it makes them drunk, and the ship is almost set on fire. Fortunately some men stay sober, and are able to put it out. Instead, they try fishing, and find the sea around this island (it’s probably Iceland… which is made of fused, black, lifeless rock now, let alone after a nuclear war XD) is full of fish. With their supplies refilled, they sail onwards.
After many more days, they sight a huge column of smoke in the air – is it a fire lit by human beings? The ship sails at high speed, but the smoke only seems to come towards them very slowly. The wind drops at night, and in the morning it seems that the smoke has got further away. Again, they sail at high speed, but again the smoke appears to move away. The lookout then notices that the water around the ship is brown. Bob tastes a bit, and discovers it’s fresh! They are sailing in the current of a huge river, pouring out to sea. Altering course, they close in on the distant land – and run dangerously close to a mountain, which appears to be on fire!
The Land Enders are terrified by the sight, though Jordon realises it must be a volcano, something the ancient books tell of. The coast of the country around it is the same black, lifeless rock as they have seen in other places – but then they spot several more huge trees floating out of the river mouth. Somewhere up there is the fertile land they dream of!
Anchoring the Santa Maria II, the crew take to the boats and row up the river – straight into the jaws of a sea monster! After an epic battle, in which Bob Gray is almost killed, the monster is killed. Later on Bob and several others row up the river in the two boats, whilst Jordon is left behind. Zeke comes back alone, frantically ranting about “giant birds” and how the others “disappeared in the trees”. Jordon and a few others row up the river themselves – spotting gigantic black birds perched on a jumble of giant logs. Bob Gray’s voice seems to come from below them – the crew of the other boat have fallen into quicksand, and have almost gone under! Most of them are saved in time, as is the boat itself. Bob had been trying to grab something when he went under, and he shows it to Jordon now – it’s heather, of the kind that grows in Land End. Somewhere beyond this swampy pile of logs is a vast land, more fertile than Land End and with enough room for everybody!
Then… 1959, and my collection of Wizards, comes to an end! >.< Looks like I’ll never find out what happened to them – did they find an uninhabited land? Was it full of monsters? Was it full of hostile tribes? Perhaps the United States still exists, and has maintained a higher level of technology, but never realised anybody was still alive in Europe? I doubt I’ll ever read the end XD.