Thursday, December 12, 2013

Traveler #2: Kingdom Come

Traveler #2: Kingdom Come, by D.B. Drumm
July, 1984  Dell Books

Yet another post-nuke pulp series from the ‘80s, Traveler is one I remember checking out from my local library as a kid (they actually had men’s adventure novels on a spinner rack!). I think I read the first volume, but they didn’t have any others and so I never bothered buying the later volumes at WaldenBooks, as even then I was a geek and demanded continuity; if I was missing a volume, I said to hell with it.

Anyway the series ran for 13 volumes and was written by Ed Naha and my man John Shirley, both of them credited under the house name “D.B. Drumm.” According to this site, Shirley wrote volumes #2-6 and 8, and Naha wrote the rest. Given my enjoyment of Shirley’s writing I finally decided to track down these books, starting with his first volume; I’ll read the Shirley installments first and then go back and read the Naha volumes. In the meantime though you can check out Zwolf, Marty McKee, and this funny overview for a review of Naha’s #1: First You Fight, which by all accounts sounds like a Yojimbo/Fistful Of Dollars sort of riff.

Kingdom Come though has a lot more going for it, and given that it was Shirley’s first volume it actually reads like the first volume of the series proper. For one, Shirley gives us background info on our titular protagonist and also informs us that the novel takes place in the year 2004. In 2004 I was sitting in a cubicle doing the email marketing for JCPenney, but damned if I wouldn’t have rather been driving around a post-nuke world, blowing away mutants and “roadrats” and picking up busty post-apocalypse babes.

Shirley further informs us that the nuclear war occurred in 1989, and was instigated by President Andrew Frayling (100% not based on Ronald Reagan), a mostly senile former actor-turned president who launched a nuclear war on Russia for no more reason than his own contrariness. But even before the war our protagonist had issues. Back then he was known as Lt. Kiel Paxton, and he was a badass commando, in Force Recon and the like. During a mission in the Central American country El Hiagura (100% not based on Nicaragua), Paxton was doused with experimental neurotoxins, which left him with sort-of superhero powers: a sixth sense which allows him to key in on people around him, but which sometimes overloads his system to the point where he can’t cope.

Immediately after this mission the war hit, and Paxton’s wife and young child were killed in the catastrophe; Paxton, surviving due to being out of the strike zones down in Central America, renamed himself “Traveler” and hit the road in the “Meat Wagon,” a customized van that’s geared up with heavy weaponry. Denying himself memories of his past life and his family, he thinks of himself solely as a nameless wanderer, trying to stay alive just so he can gain vengeance upon Major Vallone, the man who lead Traveler into the ambush that doused him with neurotoxins. Now in his late 30s, Traveler looks just as depicted on the cover, complete with the ‘80s-mandatory headband.

I enjoy Shirley’s Specialist series, but judging just from this one volume, his work on Traveler is a lot better. For one you can tell his heart is more in it, but also given the post-nuke vibe Shirley is free to indulge in his fondness for sci-fi and horror. The latter is especially prevalent, with one scene in particular, where Traveler and his companions encounter concrete-eating mutants, seeming to come straight out of a horror novel.

The plot of this novel concerns Traveler escorting Princess Sandy of the Kingdom of Wichita to Kansas City, where she is to marry the son of Baron Moorcock. Yes, it’s all very goofy and wacky, and I haven’t even mentioned the gigantic Siamese cat Ronin and its Shaolin monk owner Nicholas Shumi! But it’s this very wackiness that allows Shirley to write some unhinged and enjoyable material. If you’re turned off by the customary right-wing slant of most men’s adventure novels, you should check out Traveler, as not only is it a thorough skewering of right-wing posturing, but it also doles out all of the expected tropes of the genre, so you get all that and more.

Traveler just happens upon the Wichita delegation as they’re being attacked by “roadrats:” basically, the leather-clad barbarians as seen in Road Warrior and other post-nuke films. Traveler tries to drive on by, even though he clearly sees that these people are about to be killed to the man, and the sole (of course beautiful) woman with them will doubtlessly be raped over and over. It seems that part of the series thrust is Traveler’s denying his own basic goodness; he wants to shut off all hummanity and be one with this dead world.

But of course he turns right back around and blasts the shit out of the roadrats. When Shirley’s on form he can knock out a hell of an action novel, and Kingdom Come is one of his best. It’s really just one long chase scene, but Shirley’s enthusiasm barrels you right along. Unlike in some of his lesser Specialist novels, there’s no point where it comes off like padded and boring. One thing the two series share though is incredibly graphic sex and violence, as well as protagonists who give their enemy no quarter. Traveler’s just as merciless as Jack Sullivan; there’s a memorable bit where he cuts off a roadrat’s head and uses it to psych out the guy’s partners.

After hearing their bizarre story – Sandy is to marry the son of the Baron so as to unite the kingdoms of Kansas City and Wichita – Traveler agrees to escort the group in exchange for fuel and ammunition. With the group there’s Thorne, who acts as the head of the delegation, and Pearlman, a mercenary who serves as Traveler’s backup throughout the novel. During the journey Traveler and crew are constantly attacked by roadrats and bikers on their way to Kansas City, thus leading to many action scenes. Traveler knows something is up, given the training and weaponry the roadrats have, all of which is unusual given how the various groups are notorious for not getting along.

Here the right-wing/Reagan skewering comes into play, as we learn that President Frayling is secretly trying to prevent the unification of Kansas City and Wichita. Now in Las Vegas, Frayling is surrounded by sycophants and a personal guard of soldiers referred to as “Glory Boys.” Shirely writes the scene with tongue firmly in cheek as a doddering Frayling stumbles over furniture and has trouble remembering things while discussing his plans with an assistant named Beaman. We also learn that Traveler’s old enemy Major Vallone heads up the Glory Boys, and Vallone himself has been tasked with stopping the Wichita delegation from reaching Kansas City.

We get another taut sequence where Glory Boy gunships come after the Meat Wagon; this leads to the horror-novel bit mentioned above, where Traveler heads into the long-abandoned Genectics Experimentation Center, an underground facility which turns out to be the home to mutant creatures which eat through concrete. Other mutants in Kingdom Come include that giant feline, Ronin; its owner, Nicholas Shumi, greets Traveler with some mystical blather that the two are destined to meet again someday.

But the most interesting mutant by far is the Black Rider, an infamous biker-ninja type who is introduced into the series with this volume and will serve as another of Traveler’s archenemies in the forthcoming installments. The Black Rider is Vallone’s top henchman, and is responsible for uniting the roadrats and bikers in the effort to stop the Wichita delegation.

The Black Rider was truly black. Not black like an African. There was nothing Negroid in his features. He was a mutant. He was jet-black, everywhere, including the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet and both thin lips of his expressionless mouth. There were no whites to his eyes, and no iris. His eyes were entirely black, like orbs of onyx. He had no hair, not even eyebrows. He had no ears; in place of them were membranes which vibrated visibly when there was a loud noise near him. But for this, and except for a profound proximity-sense much like Traveler’s, he was ostensibly human.

Strangely the Black Rider also wears black, Shirley describing his Road Warrior-approved black biker leather, but personally I’d go for orange or something for a little contrast. Anyway the Black Rider only appears late in the tale, and mostly bosses around his roadster minions, however we learn that like a true El Cid he personally leads his men into combat – though instead of on a horse it’s on a Harley hog, of course. When Traveler sees the Black Rider from the Kansas City battlements he instantly knows that this black mutant is his enemy, and later when Traveler and Pearlman infiltrate the roadrats camp they abduct him, though of course he eventually escapes to return another day.

And it wouldn’t be a Shirley novel without his patented XXX-rated sex scenes; the obligatory Traveler/Sandy shagging develops naturally for the most part, with the blonde goddess Sandy taking an instant interest in Traveler, but Traveler himself ignoring her as he’s been trying for 15 years now to shut off all feelings. But when the sparks fly Shirley goes all out, with the scene here even more graphic than any in the Specialist books I’ve yet read – a scene complete with terms like “clitoral hood,” which I have to admit was a new one for me. See, you can learn things from these books!!

Shirley also appears to be carefully setting up future storylines. For one there’s the aforementioned Nicholas Shumi and giant cat; the monk makes it clear that the usual “prophecy” stuff has foretold that Traveler will do something important someday. But once he’s deposited Sandy in Wichita – after several action and chase scenes, internal betrayal, and Sandy’s frequent attempts to run off with him – Traveler tells the girl they’ll no doubt meet again and then hits the road, blasting the Doors’s “Roadhouse Blues” on the Meat Wagon tape deck.

What I love about these post-nuke books is how they portray basically a future version of the ‘80s. I think the jury’s out on if the future we actually got was any better.


Tom Johnson said...

I've read Shirley's Specialist series and enjoyed them. I'll have to find some of these, but will probably have to look online. Bookstores are about gone in this area now.

Marty McKee said...

I forgot that I read this, but never wrote about it for some reason. I have at least one more Traveler volume. I should move that up the stack.

russell1200 said...

Great Review! The body part you comment on sounds straight out of the Penthouse Forum section of the day.

English Teacher X said...

Hell, my local library STILL has men's adventure novels on spin racks.

Zwolf said...

Thanks for the plug! :) The Traveler books got me through many a study hall back in the day... I never finished the series, but I've since picked them all up and plan to work my way through them. They got a little wacky for me with all the giant cats and stuff, but nothing I couldn't handle, especially since road-warrior stuff is easily my favorite genre.

Felicity Walker said...

I guess apocalypse isn’t all bad if we get giant kitties.