Sunday, August 12, 2007

Deathbeast by David Gerrold (1978)

Paperback cover blurb


There were eight of them – six hunters and two official guides.

Their destination was Earth as it was a hundred million years ago, long before human dominion, when the great hot-blooded dinosaurs ruled supreme.

Each of the time travelers had a different motive. Some were on this strange safari for pay. Others were taking a psychological and sexual holiday from civilization. There were women who wanted to show themselves the equal to men – and men out to test and prove their manhood.

But whatever their drives and desires, their strengths and weaknesses, the ultimate horror was waiting for them all…


My thoughts

The best thing Deathbeast has going for it is its simple and straightforward plot. A group of hunters from the future travel back to the Cretaceous Period to take down a Tyrannosaurus rex, but the animal proves more than they can handle. Unfortunately, Gerrold stumbles in about every other regard.

Deathbeast is a horror novel despite its science fiction trappings. It is Jaws with a T. rex instead of a shark. The 40-foot-long dinosaur has an unnatural ability to sneak up on unsuspecting people and gobble them up, and regardless of the amount of damage that the hunters inflict on the creature, it… just… won’t… die!

That said, Gerrold’s hunters are not particularly well-equipped to take out the beast. They carry laser guns, which because of some scientific mumbo-jumbo about water content in bodies, do little except really tick the creature off. We learn in the course of events that previous hunting expeditions also had failed to bring down a T. rex, so you wonder why they haven’t got the hint by now that laser guns don’t work. And, more bizarrely, at one point a character takes down a brontosaurus with a single laser rifle. There isn’t much logic about how the novel’s high-tech weaponry is supposed to work.

The book is notable for being one of the first examples of fiction to fully embrace the idea of warm-blooded dinosaurs, but Gerrold didn’t do much research beyond that. He places animals from different time periods in the same setting, so there are allosaurs and tyrannosaurs walking side by side. At one point he writes that dinosaurs had gone extinct only 10 million years before the emergence of humankind, although he later corrects himself.

The author also makes the mistake of filling Deathbeast with a group of thoroughly unlikable characters. The hero is a safari guide who cracks jokes while the people he is supposed to be protecting get slaughtered by the T. rex, and the rest of the cast are just as despicable. When one character, for example, is in an understandable state of shock after seeing her significant other get eaten, the rest of the group treats her with hostility. It’s hard to care about what is going to happen to any of these people. Gerrold’s error is one common to horror fiction: It’s not scary if the characters are only getting what they deserve.

The writing itself can be laughably melodramatic, particularly anytime the “deathbeast” of the title shows up. Gerrold sure likes his dashes– his triple periods… and his exclamation marks! A little subtlety in the writing and a cast of humane characters would’ve gone a long way toward improving Deathbeast.


  • Gerrold is a science fiction writer who may be best known for writing the famous Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
  • Of interest to readers of this site, Gerrold also was the story editor for the first season of the original Land of the Lost, a Saturday morning children’s show about a family trapped in a prehistoric valley. The show, during its first two seasons, was quite good, showing much more maturity in its stories and characterizations than most children’s programming.


  • None


Bob Mozark said...

I remember reading this book quite some time ago, maybe 10-15 years, and not liking it all that much. It hasn't really stuck in my memory, other than the guy who was paying for the expedition was an arrogant rich ******* how brought along an entourage of browbeaten snycophants to bear witness to his presumed manfullness.

The "white hunter" who doesn't respect his ersatz macho clients is a common meme in adventure fiction. Time Safari by David Drake & L. Sprague deCamp's "Rivers of Time" are two paleofiction examples of this. As I recall almost every one of their clients are either a bumbler, a fool or a coward when the chips are down.

Hemingway's famous short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", later made into a movie entitled "The Macomber Affair," is probably the most famous example of this meme.

DoubleW said...

You're right about the "macho clients" theme that runs throughout these safari stories, although Drake and de Camp did it much better than Gerrold did. I couldn't say why it is such a popular theme, other than it serves as a handy plot device.

Bob Mozark said...

I remember a juvenile science fiction story that I read 40-45 years ago called "Danger: Dinosaurs" by Richard Marsten. It was also about a time travel hunting expedition to the Mesozoic which also had an arrogant rich fool who wouldn't follow the rules or advice of the guides resulting in his death and those of several other members of the expedition, including the senior guide. The unique thing about this story was that after each person died all memories and physical evidence of their existence where somehow erased by the timestream. Even as a child, I knew that this was implausible. I have looked for this story in used bookstores, but apparently it is somewhat of a collector's item.

Anonymous said...

At last year's LosCon, David Gerrold was asked about "books you wish you'd never written" and he mentioned Deathbeast. He said he'd been hired to write a low-budget movie script, but after it was finished, the producer decided to do something else. So David did a quicky novelization of his unfilmed script. But he said it didn't quite fall into the "books he wished he'd never written" category because it was his first attempt at doing a straightforward action story, and he learned a lot about what worked and what didn't work from the writing of it. He said it was an essential lesson he needed to learn before he went on to the Chtorr series, which he was already working on at the time. The book has some fun characterization, but other than that, it's not one of his better efforts.

Anonymous said...

I'm a late-comer to this post, but I *loved* this book. I bought it in an airport when I went off to summer camp in North Carolina. At age 8 I was no literary critic, but I knew how to judge a book by its cover. Time travel, dinosaurs, and lasers. It was Jaws meets Star Wars. What's not to like?

Evan Kendal said...

I agree with anonymous on this one, picked off shelf when I was 14 and loved it, actually read it twice in a row. I remember imagining the movie it would make and seeing it play in my head. That was a long time ago, but it still is in the old memory banks. At Star Trek Las Vegas 2014 I asked David Gerrold about it and he mentioned that the film that was made from his idea we Planet of the Dinosaurs. They basically ripped him off, but the movie was so bad, he did not want to be associated with it so he didn´t make a stink about it.