Monday, September 12, 2016

Traveler #4: To Kill A Shadow

Traveler #4: To Kill A Shadow, by D.B. Drumm
November, 1984  Dell Books

John Shirley delivers another fast-moving Traveler installment that reads more like splatterpunk horror fiction than the typical post-nuke pulp; of all the authors I’ve read in this subgenre, Shirley is the best at conveying the horrors of a post-nuke world. But by “horrors” I don’t mean starvation and disease and widespread suffering; rather, I mean gut-churning monstronsities that have been spawned by the radioactive fallout. While Shirley’s preceding two volumes have had horror elements, To Kill A Shadow goes full-bore, with our hero confronting one nuke-created monster after another.

But whereas such monster moments would be played more as a goofy creature feature in say Doomsday Warrior, Shirley’s monster moments are a helluva lot more creepy and scary – not to mention gut-churning. He’s got some sick stuff this time out, displayed immediately, as Traveler, now up in Northern California to look into some “strange US military business going on up this way,” runs into a pack of cen-cars, ie half-men, half-cars. Sounds super-stupid, but these are such disgusting creations – they haul around translucent packs, in which you can see the digesting remains of the humans they’ve eaten, for example – that it isn’t played for laughs at all.

It’s now 2005, we’re informed, whereas the previous volume was in 2004; not sure how much many months have passed, but Traveler has been thinking about heading back down to Arizona to hook up again with Jan, the sexy Indian babe he fell in love with last time. But first he’s up here in California to find archenemies Vallone and the Black Rider, to finally settle the score he has with both of them. This is how he runs into the cen-cars, which we’re informed are pre-nuke military experiments that have run amok in the post-nuke world.

Indeed, all the monsters Traveler encounters this time are the creation of genetic experimentation courtesy the post-WWIII American army; as in previous books, there’s a rabid anti-right sentiment throughout. Shirley was no doubt the only leftist punk rock writer in the entire men’s adventure/post-nuke pulp genre, and that’s once again quite apparent; his books have an edgy energy uncommon for the genre. As we’ll recall, Vallone is the bastard who caused Traveler’s nervous system to be damaged by a neurotoxin chemical before the war, and now he’s become the head of the “Glory Boys,” ie the leather-clad soldiers of the new United States.

Traveler wants to kill the bastard once and for all, plus he also wants to take out the Black Rider, the all-black mutant biker who first appeared in the second volume. Traveler figures the two might be involved with whatever “military business” is going on here in California. During his gory battle with the cen-cars Traveler comes across human captives who are bound and hanging, waiting to be feasted on by the creatures. He frees them and escapes to their commune, which is run by Brother John, aka “Christ.” The people here, each of them named “Brother” or “Sister,” are part of a religion that sees John as Christ reborn, his “Holy Book” providing them all the guidance they need.

Sure enough, the Holy Book has prophecized a “Holy Warrior,” and Brother John – an amiable sort whom Traveler thinks looks more like a young rock star than a religious leader – is certain that Traveler is he. Traveler as expected smirks at all this, and besides he’s more interested in Sister Ilana, aka “The Doubter,” a tall, sexy member of the commune who keeps throwing our hero the eye. Turns out she’s had her own vision about him – he’s the man she’ll fall in love with, but whose presence will lead to her death. This doesn’t stop them from engaging in one of Shirley’s patented hardcore sex scenes, which unfortunately is the only such scene in the book.

Traveler’s shenanigans with Ilana serve to piss off chunky, unattractive Sister Jane, who gets revenge by setting Traveler up; the only person on the commune who has seen any of the Glory Boys, Ilana guides Traveler over rough country for a few days, leading him to where she claims to have seen the soldiers – and right into a Glory Boy ambush. (For her troubles she’s sent to the experimentation pens by Vallone.) In a brief firefight Traveler’s head is hit and he’s blinded. He manages to escape, running blind through the woods, and Shirley doles out more of his creepy-crawlies: Trompers, these bizarre creatures that are like hunchbacked legs that the Glory Boys ride on, and Snakeheads, half-men, half-snakes.

Brother John’s people save Traveler, thus putting them in danger of reprisals. Meanwhile a recuperating Traveler spends more quality time with Ilana and also befriends Robbie, a twelve-year-old boy who has grown up in the commune and is subtly presented as the son Traveler was supposed to have – the son who was incenerated in the nuclear war, several years ago. Shirley doesn’t make this budding relationship cloying or maudlin, and spends occasional sections of the narrative in Robbie’s perspective, so we readers see that he’s a strong character in his own right, and a survivor just like Traveler.

Shirley this time also brings back the metapyhiscal aspect of the series, courtesy Nicholas Shumi, the wizened Buddhist monk who rides around on his elephant-sized mutatn cat, Ronin. Shumi and Ronin appear sporadically, with Shumi again telling a cynical Traveler that Traveler is an important person in post-nuke America. He also intimates that he has “plans” for young Robbie. Shirley opens up the novel a bit further with Quinlow and Buford, bumbling dudes who work for the military as Snakehead handlers but who harbor a lot of resentment for Vallone and the Black Rider; clearly meant to remind the reader of Laurel and Hardy, these two eventually become Traveler’s comrades. 

Luckily the blindness stuff doesn’t stick around long – it too being foretold by Ilana in her vision, by the way – and it turns out a bullet lodged in his skull has impaired Traveler’s sight. After surgery, he gets his sight back in another tense action scene, in which Ilana has been captured by Vallone and the Snakeheads and held for ransom. In the fight, Traveler not only regains his vision but is also unable to save Ilana, who is killed by one of the Snakeheads, thus fulfilling her own vision-prophecy. Wisely, Shirley doesn’t waste much print on her after this; Traveler buries her, thinks grim thoughts, and gets on with the business of revenge.

First though he has to prepare Brother John’s commune for the attack that is to come. Over the next week Traveler trains these people how to fight and how to defend themselves; from Quinlow and Buford they have learned that Vallone will be unleashing his latest biological horror upon the commune: the Gutters, which are like biped rhinos. They have horned heads which are designed to gut their prey, hence their name.

The ensuing battle is chaotic and bloody, Shirley mostly relaying it through Robbie, who proves himself to be a hero. Traveler meanwhile has gone off to gather up his “secret weapon,” which cleverly turns out to be those cen-cars. When Traveler defeated their leader, early in the book, the surviving cen-cars honked their horns at him as a sign of their fealty(!). Now Traveler drafts them in the bloody battle against the Gutters.

The final quarter of To Kill A Shadow gets back to the vengeance plotline. Traveler and a few commune members, including Quinlow and Buford, head off in Traveler’s Meat Wagon van. More bizarre post-nuke stuff ensues, like a memorable visit to “The Hungry Land,” a section of earth created by the Black Rider which feeds on anyone that comes across it, literally; Shirley describes the place as having a pulsing purple glow, very reminiscent of a blacklight poster. Have I mentioned that, in Traveler’s world, the phrase “Satan’s Burned Earth” has replaced the old “God’s Green Earth?” Yet more indication of the black humor which Shirley has invested this series.

Perhaps the grossest monster in the book is a 14-foot long maggot that guards the tunnel that leads into Vallone’s underground military complex; the monster-maggot too was biogenetically created from a man. The battle with it is creepy and gory, leading to some inventive usage of TNT. In fact Shirley spends so much time on monster-bashing that the fights with the Glory Boys almost come off as forgettable; after fighting so many disgusting creatures, some thug in a leather uniform just seems mundane. However, Shirley does at least give memorable sendoffs for Vallone and the Black Rider. 

Interestingly, To Kill A Shadow sees Shirley hastily wrapping up a plot he’s been building over the past two books. This is the same thing he did in the concurrent Specialist series, which featured a hasty wrapup of the overriding vengeance theme in the third volume. To Kill A Shadow was the fourth volume of Traveler, but it was the third one Shirley wrote, so I find it interesting that here he follows the same three-volume vengeance arc. In fact it makes me wonder if in both cases he hedged his bets and wrapped up the plots in case either series didn’t do well and folded early.

While it’s nice to see Traveler get his vengeance, it does come off as a bit unsatisfying, particularly because Shirley spends so much of To Kill A Shadow with the Brother John commune and Traveler’s blindness and young Robbie and etc. Vallone and the Black Rider appear in just a handful of pages each. Given that it turns out this is the last we’ll ever see of them, it would’ve been more satisfying if they’d been a little more visible throughout the novel.

But Shirley, as mentioned, at least gives them memorable sendoffs. Vallone’s is the most outrageous: Traveler, having broken into the military complex, finds a nude Vallone in bed with his latest woman, who has tied Vallone to the bed; Vallone likes to get whipped, you see. Traveler, still holding a stick of dynamite, lubes up the end of the shaft, lights it, and sticks it up Vallone’s ass! He even laughs crazily as he runs out of the room before it explodes, looking back inside at the carnage and destruction.

The Black Rider’s fate is a bit more standard: the mutant escapes the base in a helicopter, and Traveler commandeers another, holding the pilot at gunpoint and ordering him to chase after it. After knocking the Black Rider’s helicopter out of the sky—right over the Hungry Land, conveniently enough – Traveler chases after him, shoots him in the chest twice, and watches happily as the ground opens up and eats its own creator. Which should pretty much be all she wrote for the Black Rider; too bad, as he was the most memorable villain in the series, but as mentioned sadly underused here, only garnering a few lines of dialog.

Along the way Traveler picks up a new comrade in arms: John Link, a muscle-bound black prisoner in Vallone’s complex who served as a Green Beret in ‘Nam. Given that he decides to head to Arizona with Traveler in the finale, I expect we’ll see him in the next volume. However we won’t be seeing Robbie – Traveler, when he returns to the commune, is upset to find that Robbie is gone. Turns out Shumi returned and took the boy with him, stating his plans to train the boy as his apprentice. Here we learn that Traveler had intended to take the boy himself, to be the father figure he needed – quite a bit of character development for a guy who has spent the past two volumes trying to run from responsibility.

Shirley again displays his dark, cynical roots with the revelation here that Brother John is dead, killed by a Snakehead while defending Robbie in yet another attack on the commune. Turns out that John’s “Holy Book” was nothing more than a science fiction paperback from 1986 titled The Holy Warrior, all about a hero who came to save a religious commune in a post-nuke hellscape! It’s this sort of genre-mockery that Shirley pulls off throughout the series, and it’s a lot of fun, mostly because he always plays it so straight; as opposed to The Destroyer, despite the near-parody levels of the series, it’s all quite serious to the characters themselves, thus Traveler can be enjoyed both as an over-the-top exercise in gory horror and as a genuine men’s adventure tale.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying this series; as I’ve mentioned before the post-nuke setting gives Shirley free reign to indulge in his horror and sci-fi roots, so you can tell he too was enjoying it. I’d place Traveler alongside Doomsday Warrior and the almighty Phoenix as the best in post-nuke pulps.


Zwolf said...

Another great review. :) I was huge into Traveler when I was in high school, but got thrown off a bit by some of the wacky mutant stuff. I remember the centuar-car things being more than a bit yeeeeargh, and when the guy riding around on the giant housecat showed up, I quit reading 'em for a while. Kept buying 'em, though. The anti-right stuff was a bonus... living in the theocratic South that's consistently last in the country yet continues decades of electing the mismanaging idiots, it was nice to see somebody else taking a shot at them. Made me realize not everybody was insane... just everybody who lived near me. :)

John Shirley was always a horror writer first, so it's not surprising he sneaked as much gore and monstrosity in as he could. I just wish he'd drawn the line at some of the silly stuff a little further back than he did. His writing is always better than most of the genre. I don't know if he wrote the last Traveler book, but whoever did threw in maybe the weirdest twist I've ever seen in this genre. Outside of the Lone Wolf series (kinda hard to top that one).

I still have yet to read any of the Phoenix books (got 'em all, though), but my fave post-nuke series is still probably The Last Ranger. Outrider has some charm, too, but lord can that series get goofy at times, with all the "I don't have hands, I have knives!" kind of stuff.

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

I remember the Outrider series! A dude witha v-12 powered dune buggy, another with a steam locomotive, Radleps,etc., that series was the shit when I was 12 or so.
Anyone remember a series called The Warlord? I don't remember if it was an actual "post-nuke" series, but it took place in a California that had been separated from N. Am. and had become sort of a Mad Max-esque hellhole? All the covers had a picture of a crossbow, the main dude's signature weapon? I haven't seen any of those in years...

Joe Kenney said...

Apologies for only now getting to these comments, guys -- Zwolf, you definitely need to read Phoenix. They're the best of the bunch so far as post-nuke pulp goes. I guarantee you'll love them! And something about this subgenre really brought out the left-wing addition to Shirley's Traveler work, there's Doomsday Warrior: Century City is basically a socialist utopia, which, given the right-winger, "America: Fuck Yeah!" mindset of Ted Rockson and the other heroes, is certainly some in-jokery courtesy Ryder Syvertsen. (And I've begun to wonder if the entire series was a spoof of Johnstone's mega-right wing "Ashes" series...) The Last Ranger also has the same vibe -- Martin Stone rails against authority in every book, and I just read #4 (actually re-read, as I read it when I was a kid), where he revolts against a right-wing, Nazi-like "New American Army."

David, I've got all those Warlord books -- I lucked out majorly and came across the scarce final two volumes for like a buck each in a used bookstore in Chicago during a recent trip there -- and I intend to start reading them soon. A very gifted author named Raymond Obstfeld wrote the first five volumes. though all six were credited to "Jason Frost." I'm not sure how I'll categorize this series, as it has all the hallmarks of post-nuke pulp but doesn't actually occur after a nuclear war; if I understand it correctly, it takes place after a major earthquake or something. However the series was packaged and hyped like the other post-nuke pulps of the day, so we'll see.