New novel takes Lewis and Clark to post-apocalyptic future

Author Ben Percy
Benjamin Percy gained acclaim for his 2013 werewolf novel "Red Moon," and is also writing the Green Arrow comic book.
Courtesy Jennifer Percy

Dark but wonderful tales are emerging from Northfield, where Benjamin Percy is enjoying success in TV, comic books, and as of tomorrow, a new novel.

"The Dead Lands" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition that springs from Percy's focus on fiction that explores the dark side of human nature.

Percy will launch the book Tuesday at J. Grundy's Reub 'N' Stein Bar in Northfield. He then leaves on a five-week national tour that includes an April 30 stop at Common Good Books in St. Paul.

"Red Moon," his latest novel published in 2013, tackled werewolves. In his new one, he travels backward — and forward — in history.

The story is a natural for Percy, who grew up in Oregon steeped in the Lewis and Clark story, and the launch of the Westward expansion.

At one point, he thought about recreating the journey for a non-fiction book, taking a significant person in his life to each of the pivotal sites of what he considers the most important adventure story in American history.

"And then my wife very reasonably asked me 'How long is that going to take?'" Percy said. "And so I decided to make some stuff up instead."

The Dead Lands
Benjamin Percy's new book, "The Dead Lands," tells a post-apocalyptic version of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Courtesy Grand Central Publishing

"The Dead Lands" is set in a future where North America has been ravaged by an epidemic of superflu, followed by climate change and nuclear conflict. For 100 years, the people in a walled settlement called the Sanctuary, all that's left of St. Louis, have believed they are the only survivors in the middle of a radioactive desert.

"No one should come to this book looking for a history lesson," Percy said. "But I was trying to tip my hat of course to the original story."

When a messenger arrives from a community somewhere far to the west, the Sanctuary sends a search party. The leaders selected are called Lewis and Clark. As with the real-life historical characters, they are an odd couple.

"Clark in this case is a woman," he said. "And she is a rogue, the equivalent of a Captain Kirk to Lewis's Spock, who is much more introverted and logical."

Percy created the tale in the basement of his home on the outskirts of Northfield. He writes in a pleasant room where light filtered through the trees outside enters and falls upon unusual objects.

"Some people hang from their walls pretty pictures of flowers," he said. "I hang desiccated insects."

The one on his wall is a beautiful iridescent rhinoceros beetle. On nearby shelves are a bunch of skulls, both real and sculpted, and a Chinese dragon. An old manual typewriter sits on a pedestal.

Tucked on a shelf is a battered fedora, a reminder of archaeology student expeditions on which Percy spent a lot of time excavating and documenting ancient Paiute settlements in the scrublands of Oregon. It was hard, sweaty work that didn't live up to a more glamorous vision of archaeology from the movie theaters of his youth.

"There were no rolling boulders, there were no Nazis to do battle with, there were no beautiful women. There were only snakes," he said. "That was the only part of the Indiana Jones mythology that held true. And so I hung up my fedora and picked up my pen instead."

The pen eventually brought Percy to Northfield, where until recently he taught writing at St. Olaf College.

Stepping away from the classroom has given him time to focus entirely on stories like the one that drives "The Dead Lands," a novel that presents its characters with challenges far beyond those experienced by the original Lewis and Clark expedition — from radioactive mutants to magic ice labyrinths, human-sized albino bats and mechanical owls.

"The Dead Lands" is written to entertain, but Percy hopes it also holds up "a cracked mirror" to contemporary issues of disease, divided government, climate change and conflict.

Percy is still working on other projects. He has a couple of TV series in development, including a crime drama called "Black Gold" set in the North Dakota oil patch.

He's also writing the high-profile Green Arrow title for DC Comics.

Immediately after the news broke, Green Arrow fans inundated him on social media, asking what he intended to do with the character — a vigilante superhero who uses archery, martial arts and technology to fight crime — and his back story.

"And of course I'm under a gag order about all of this," he said. "But it just made me worry."

Percy will say he's taking the series to a much darker place. He's also wrapping up his next novel "The Dark Net."

"[It's] is sort of like 'The Matrix' meets 'The Exorcist,'" he said with a chuckle. "Nice, quiet, friendly tale."

Percy has been so busy that he decided he can make a living solely through his writing.

"I'm full-time at the keyboard. I'm a professional liar," he said with a huge grin. "It feels good!"

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