I’m going to veer off my vintage reads and tap something a bit more modern. Please forgive me.
Way back in junior high, I had a strong dislike for reading. My entire family were readers. Every time we moved to another town, city, state, we found that local library (or, in some cases, numerous county libraries) and they spent a good hour or two there, sifting through various fiction genres, or mom through the cookbook section. It was miserable. They tried so hard to get me into reading.
Fact is, I couldn’t stand the crap they (or the schools) wanted me to read. So, in the 5th Grade, we hit the local library and I tried out one of those Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks. That turned out to be a success (prior failures included the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys series).
After moving from the South to the North, I found myself in the same rut again for nearly two years. To worsen matters, the 8th Grade English teacher assigned our class to choose a book to read (that he must “OK”) and submit a report.
So, in 1990, while rummaging through dozens of paperbacks, I stumbled across an unusual cover. It featured two teenagers frightened out of their wits: the male wielding a broken bat, the girl staring at the reader in horror, and a sinister-looking landscape. Yes, I had judged a book by its cover. I liked what I saw, was intrigued, read the blurb. Then read it again. Was this for real? A post apocalyptic war novel for teenagers?
I devoured this “easy read” and instantly attempted to locate the rest of the series. The library was able to fill in the remainder, and to my dismay, after finishing the fourth novel, I learned that there wasn’t a fifth novel. How was this possible? It was extremely clear to me, and any other person, that if the series came to an abrupt end, it would be with the fifth novel !!! This was absurd. I felt as though I had been robbed.
At that age, it never crossed my mind to write a letter to the publishers, to be forwarded on as fan mail to the authors.
So, 27 years later, I am writing you now.
They’ll likely never see this….
I want you (Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel) to know that, 27 years ago, that not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading your 4 novel series, FIREBRATS, but they were instrumental in creating a reader. You were also instrumental in helping me to locate a genre that interested me: post-apocalyptic fiction. I would soon turn to collecting and reading David Robbins’ ENDWORLD and his BLADE spin-off series (the first author I ever wrote a fan letter to and received a reply), the DEATHLANDS series by alias James Axler (I have a fan letter from Laurence James, right before he died), C.A.D.S, DOOMSDAY WARRIOR, the ASHES series, and so many more. Sadly, given that era, all of these assorted series came to an abrupt end in 1991. The Berlin Wall was down, Russia in economic collapse, the Cold War was over. There simply was no reason to continue publishing the genre (although DEATHLANDS continued to be published on a regular basis, no doubt the publishers realizing that they had a steady, loyal readership, and no competition).
So, some years ago, a seller on eBay began unloading his vastly hoarded collection of vintage paperbacks. Among the selection were the first 3 titles in the FIREBRATS series. Nothing impressive about that, except, they were all literally unread. Immaculate. Fresh and crisp as the day they were printed. I had an “in” with a friend of a friend, and nabbed them dirt cheap (versus what online sellers are trying to obtain for shoddy reading grade copies). I have them still, bagged and sealed. Sadly, I have yet to locate a perfect copy of the final novel (a copy is listed, however, it is mercilessly overpriced and the dealer “claims” it is fine, but it is not).
That said, fast forward to 2017. I want to read them, but you can bet your ass that I am NOT opening these 3 beauties. So, like anyone else, I hunted around. No luck. Couldn’t find a cheap copy of any issues. Remarkably, of the few surviving used bookshops in the Central Florida area, one had a battered copy of the second book, for $2 + tax.
There was no hesitation; (I also nabbed a solid Vg+ copy of ENDWORLD # 1 for $4).
With such great savings, I decided to plunk down on a $15 copy (plus shipping) listed on ABEbooks.com. The seller claimed it to be a Near Fine unread copy.
Inside, the first page, aside from penciled numbers from the dealer and the price, a prior owner had inked “JG.” Other than that, yes, the internal pages are gorgeous. The cover, and spine, however, are rubbed, blemished, reading creased, cracked spine, and the laminate faded and dull and crackling all along the edges. This is NOT a near fine book.
Still, $20 for that and $2 and tax for the other, divide by two, and the price isn’t bad. Now, if only I can become as lucky with the final two novels… Not likely, however, I am a very patient person.
On the other hand, I doubt that I will ever locate a mint copy of that final novel to pair up with the other three. Now, if I could obtain the original Les Edwards paintings, that would be icing on the cake! (Let me have my dreams).
So, in a matter of hours, I again devoured the first book. Perhaps not as quickly as my younger self. Why? I’m older. I wanted badly to recapture that old feeling. To some degree, I did, but my youth and innocence have long since been buried.
What I did immediately notice, on reading, is that why the Siegel’s certainly used the Cold War conflict as the reason for nuclear warfare, it all came back to me in a rush that this series never once has Russia invading our soil. We never really deal with the politics of the war ever again. The story, at its heart, is all about the survival of two teenagers (Matthew “Matt” Chandler and Danielle “Dani” Cortland). Matt is a high school athlete (not a talented one) and Dani (the name abbreviated by Matt, initially much to her anger) is an aspiring actress.
When they first meet, Matt is alone in a theater, setting up for an event that night. Left alone for hours, he is interrupted by a banging outside. Opening up, he meets a heavily make-upped Danielle, dolled up, and while agreeably pretty, Matt is certainly she could be a few years older than he (we later learn she is perhaps six months older than 16 year old Matt). Despite being in the same grade, she attends a prep school, while he is at a public school. They instantly have an intense dislike for one another.
While jamming to his Walkman, his rock-station is broken into by a screechingly high-pitched whining noise. Losing his rock, he spins the dial and finds a public broadcast stating that Russia has launched all their nuclear bombs. Find food, water, and shelter, that the bombs are slated to hit in mere minutes. Talks are off.
Looking outside, he watches bedlam ensue. After briefly attempting to convince Danielle, he begins scooping up all the food and beverages and running them down to the subterranean basement. Meanwhile, she has finally gazed outside and is convinced that the world has indeed gone all to hell. She wants to go home. It’s too far. Persuading her to join him below for safety, they lock themselves in and…BOOM!!!
And now, the real guts of the novel begin. Their first tests not only discovering how to light a candle in the dark, but learning to cope with each other, cabin fever, properly portioning out their meals to last, creating a space to go to the bathroom (no mention of stench is ever discussed in the novel…okay, it IS a juvenile publication, so no doubt the authors were limited), etc. When Danielle hears scraping outside, she joyfully unlocks the door and rushes out…into the waiting claws and dripping teeth of snarling, infected dogs, looking for food.
Espying this warm, two-legged morsel, they attack the dainty delicacy. She leaps into a nearby closet and Matt locks himself in the room again. It soon dawns on him that he must save her life. Making an improvised flaming rag and wielding a chair like a lion-tamer, he ventures out and forces the insane mongrels back, back, back, until he frees Danielle. She escapes back into their room, but Matt falls down and is attacked. Remarkably, rather than selfishly saving herself, she tosses out a chocolate candy bar, unwrapped. The dogs abandon Matt to investigate the candy bar. Diving back into the room, he slips into shock, and Danielle treats his lacerated leg wound with soda.
Time passes, he gets well, and an earthquake hits. The region has never had earthquakes but they are certain it is the result of the nuclear bombs, despite weeks having passed. Running for their lives, they decide to dig their way up and out of their burial, before the complex totally collapses.
Danielle is the first to create an opening to the outside world (never mind the fact their only “fresh” air was via a vent, which was contaminated, and while they earlier did suffer from the affects, nothing further is mentioned about the air quality) and see firsthand the destruction. Nearly every landmark has been obliterated.
Vacating their month-long self-made “home,” they go to her home first to check on her mother. Naturally, she is dead, but Danielle the dreamer had dreamt otherwise. Matt, meanwhile, is waiting outside, allowing her the private time to grieve, when inexplicably, Danielle gives vent to a terrified scream. Matt runs in with his lead pipe and barges into the room. She is standing there, calmer, faced by two men and a woman. They are showing effects of radiation poisoning. Loss of hair, puss, sores, etc. They explain that they heard noise in the house (seriously, a whole town, and they happen to be in the area? and what, climbed a window or rear entrance?) and entering the home, they went to investigate.
They were checking to see if a gang of hoodlums, escapees from a prison, were inside. The rationale seems off. What were these three going to legitimately do even if they did find prisoners? Sing them to sleep? (Sorry Siegels, but I’m older now). Lullaby or not, they convince Matt and Danielle (yes, she is still Danielle, not Dani yet) that they are good guys, and to join their group. They are headed West, to California. Word is that California wasn’t hit as bad as the East coast. Seriously? Word from whom?
They join the motley assortment of survivors, and while out and walking out of town, they are attacked by the prisoners. Several beaten down to death, they steal the food and capture Danielle in the process. Matt falls backwards down into a crater while attempting to save his own life. At the bottom, he splashed into muck and is instantly assaulted once more, this time by ravenous rats.
Kicking and screaming in fright, he manages to escape and climb out of the crater (a bombed-out hole from a gasoline station’s underground tanks blowing up). The survivors say to hell with the girl and attempt to convince that Matt needs to forget her and move on. He can’t. He has to save her or die trying. Shaking the survivors off with disgust, he jogs after Danielle’s captors and learns that they intend to turn her over to their leader, a man sentenced to life-in-prison for rape.
Upon learning that their destination is the hospital, he returns to their month-long lair, and dressing himself up in costumes and make-up and a wig, he then tears all apart to make himself look horrible and ugly, just like them. At night, who will know?
With that singular thought, he indeed infiltrates their base, successfully succeeds in convincing one person that he is one of them, but, unknown to him, it backfires. That man talks to the leader about one of their number being heavily infected, and that they ought to just kill him now rather than waste good food on this person. Meanwhile, Matt locates Danielle stuffed in a dumpster and guarded by two creeps. He pulls a “prop” gun and tricks them into back up. Letting her out, he tells her to run. Giving her a good lead, he points the gun at the rest of the mob and tells them to stay.
However, one of their number has lost his hearing and keeps coming at Matt. He abandons the faux gun and runs after Danielle. Making good their escape via a pipe in the ground, they slowly worm their way through muck in hopes of eventually escaping out the other side. Unfortunately, the cretins discover the pipe and discover where it ends.
Thankfully, or, rather, conveniently, Matt and Danielle see a hole in the pipe. Matt chooses to ignore it, lest they give away their position. Tempted, she takes a peek, against his instructions, and is mortified to see all of the prisoners waiting for them, at the end of the (pipe) line. He pops up out of the hole, first, and while extracting Danielle, one of the prisoners spots her climbing out. Spotted, Matt lunges upright and yanks her out of the hole. They run to his house and while trying to find the basement, she falls through the debris. Thankfully, she neither breaks a leg or her neck. Did she literally fall into the basement or down the steps? It’s not fully clear. Either way, Matt disguises the hole with more debris and they hide below while the thugs search for them.
Managing to dig into the secondary subterraneous basement on their property, Matt and Danielle locate food (mostly spoiled, but some salvageable). Loading up, they unveil his older brother’s motorbike, fill it with a small bit of discovered gas, and effect their escape.
There’s more to final pages and escape but I rather not divulge any more of the plot than absolutely necessary. Let it be noted, that yes, I can’t wait to pick up and read the second novel, simply titled “Survivors.”