Traveler #7: The Road Ghost, by D.B. Drumm
September, 1985 Dell Books
With this seventh volume of Traveler, Ed Naha, who previously wrote the first volume (the only installment I don’t have!), returns to the series; John Shirley would only return for one more installment. Naha’s a veteran writer but he’s new to me; in his hands Traveler takes on more of the feel of a post-nuke epic, and while it still has a bit of the dark comedy of the previous volumes, it’s totally lacking the punk rock vibe Shirley gave it. Which is curious, as one thing I know about Naha is that in 1978 he handled a revised edition of Lillian Roxon’s 1969 work Rock Encyclopedia, so you’d figure his book would burn with as much rock and roll power as Shirley’s did.
Well anyway, once again I was pulled out of the fictive dream in the early pages with my pendantic quest to understand when the hell this series takes place. At this point I can only conclude that whoever at Dell Books wrote the back cover copy either goofed, or misread the text of the actual books, or possibly just didn’t give a shit. Because the back cover states that it’s 2016, and in the book we’re told at least a few times that WWIII was “seventeen years ago.” Which would indicate it happened in 1999. We’re also confused in the beginning because when we meet Traveler, he’s wandering alone in the desert, befuddled, and it’s like he’s returning to the world after a long absence. Initially I thought it really was 2016, and thus ten years after the previous volume, which ended with Traveler and his girlfriend Jan heading off into a happily ever after on a yacht; the impression we get from this opening is that Traveler’s been gone a long time.
But no – shortly afterward Traveler thinks to himself that the boat, ie the boat with Jan and his buddy Link and Link’s girlfriend, blew up, just “two weeks after setting out.” So poor Traveler didn’t get very far! And he’s lost Jan and the others in the melee and doesn’t even know if they’re alive; all he knows is a shadow passed over the boat as it toiled along the Pacific, and then Traveler was thrown into the ocean and the boat had blown up. But still, Traveler’s checking out how things have changed in the post-nuke world “since he’d been gone,” with the new President getting an interstate highway together in the U.S. and all that…and the reader’s like, “only two weeks have passed?” Gradually we learn that Traveler’s been gone for a year, not two weeks…apparently he was knocked for such a loop by the exploding boat that he’s lost track of how long he wandered. Which is all well and good, if a little clumsily delivered, but there’s still the question of the date, as the text specifically references December 20th, 1989 as when the nukes went down. This means that “seventeen years later” is actually 2006, not 2016. So again, someone at Dell just goofed…and seems to have goofed on the back cover of just about every volume.
Another big difference between this and Shirley’s previous books is that The Road Ghost is a much slower read, and is one of the more deceptively slim paperbacks I’ve ever encountered. It sure looks short, at only 172 pages, but boy does it have some super-small and super-dense print. This is not helped by the crush of sometimes-monotonous sequences and often-sluggish pace. Indeed, this sluggish pace, coupled with the “epic” vibe and the sudden focus on military hardware and strategy, really reminded me of another post-nuke series: The Guardians (a series I still haven’t been able to bring myself back to, even though it’s been like six years since I read a volume). Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Naha also wrote The Marauders, a sort of a sister series of The Guardians.
“The Road Ghost” by the way turns out to be a nickname “the locals” use to reference Traveler himself, the locals being Mexicans, Traveler’s legend so pervasive that they even know of him down here. The opening makes us suspect we’re in for a taut, Shirley-esque adventure; Traveler comes across a severely rad-burned survivor named Rat Du Bois, who speaks in ryhming slang and has a face so badly burned that he looks like a human fish. He rides a buffalo and wields a spear, and sort of acts as this volume’s stand-in for Nicholas Shumi. After Rat takes his leave, Traveler heads into the nearest small town and holes up in an abandoned restaurant, fashioning weapons from household items. As mentioned there’s more of a focus on weapon-making and survival tactics in this one; Traveler even works on a junked VW Bug for a week, gearing it up to cross over the border into the US and find out what’s going on.
The craziest thing is…we never even see Traveler drive the Bug. Instead, the Meat Wagon – ie his usual armored van, which he gave to old Army buddies Hill and Orwell last time – rolls up, his two buddies behind the wheel. There’s vague mention of the neurotoxin in their systems allowing them to track down Traveler. They catch our hero up on the progress of the rebuilt USA and also inform him what likely happened to his boat: the Glory Boys, ie the personal guard of former President Frayling, the crazed Reagan spoof who was blown away previous volume, have taken up camp down here in South America. And also they’ve put together a fleet of WWII fighters and other stuff, and they’ve been bombing boats all over the Pacific. No doubt one of them got Traveler. Curiously there’s no burning yearning for Traveler to go hunt down Jan or the others; he basically just figures they’re yet more loved ones who have died.
In fact there’s no female conquest for Traveler this time, possibly the hugest difference from Shirley’s volumes. The cover shows a hot blonde toting a machine gun, and one sort of shows up…piloting a WWII B-17 Bomber, too, just like the cover. Her name’s Veronica, and like Rat Du Bois she’s another interesting character who plumb disappears from the narrative. After getting in a couple firefights with the Glory Boys and a group of hooded monks who are led by Pope Gordon, Traveler and buds find themselves escorting a “very pregnant” young Mexican gal named Maria. Per some bonkers prophecy, her child will depose Gordon, and she’s been ordered dead. Traveler decides to take her in the Meat Wagon to safety in America, leading to some nice tension with the bumpy desert roads and the constant barrage of gunfire. But due to all the chaos Maria doesn’t make it very far, and our three heroes are carrying around a newborn baby; Veronica lands her B-17 long enough to tell Traveler, apropos of nothing, about her pilot father, Alexander, and provide some info about the surrounding area. After she leaves, Traveler gives the baby the same name.
So now Traveler, Hill, and Orwell are carrying this newborn, who doesn’t act like any baby they’ve ever seen with his mystical eyes and serene expressions, and hordes of Glory Boys and armed monks are after them. It’s basically a long chase scene, same as the Shirley books were, with occasional detours into horror fiction. But again, without the splatterpunk bite of similar scenes in Shirley’s books. Veronica also tells them about “The Chemical Mountains,” an area toward the border where all the secret US germ warfare labs blew up due to the nukes, and now the place is poisoned; the trio ride through, suffering realistic flashbacks to horrible events in their lives. There’s also a part where a bunch of mutant animals attack them, including a monstrous creature that’s half-human, half-bison or something; this part has a definite Shirley vibe, as a weary Traveler gets out of the Meat Wagon, sizes up the towering creature, and shoots its balls off with his HK91.
Traveler himself is soon in a bad way. During that fog of delusion in the Chemical Mountains, Hill flashes back to when some locals tried to lynch him as a kid in the south. He runs, shooting at the lynchers, and happens to hit Traveler in the hip. The bullet passes through but the wound gets infected; and conveniently enough baby Alexander has some mysterious infection at this point, too. Per Traveler’s orders, the kid gets all the antibiotics left in the Meat Wagon fridge, and Traveler just suffers through. This leads to him being captured, and finding out that the mysterious Scar, new ruler of the Glory Boys…happens to be, spoiler alert, none other than former President Andrew Frayling. Now he’s like a post-nuke Two-Face, with one side of his face and body scorched by high rad burns. He’s still nuts, though, and plots to take back over the US with his growing armada of WWII planes, bombers, and helicopters.
But truth be told, The Road Ghost gets to be a little wearying after a while. It’s a constant sequence of one step forward, two steps back. Traveler and pals will forever be getting a leg up on their pursuers, then hit some snag and be surrounded by them, or captured, or separated, and throughout you have this increasingly-unusual baby sitting serenely in the Meat Wagon and eventually using his mind to control mutant dogs. But there’s just too much repetition, too many parts that could be whittled down, and the constant striving for the vibe of an “epic” gets to be wearying as well. Again, parts of the book caused me to experience bad flashbacks of my own – to The Guardians.
What makes it worse is that Traveler basically just sits out the finale; through various contrivances he’s managed to escape Frayling’s men (only to be captured again, par for the repetitive course of the book), then Hill and Orwell show up with their mutant dogs, which do most of the fighting for them. Our heroes sit around while the bad guys blow up and stuff. Then we even have a repeat of the Chemical Mountain stuff we already read about before, with our heroes getting blasted apart by enemy gunfire in a situation that seems increasingly like one they faced in El Higuara, the fictional South American country in which they all gained their neurotoxin abilities, right before WWIII. Indeed, all three of them actually die…only to wake up in a field hospital, to wonder if it had all just been a dream. And meanwhile Rat Du Bois shows up again, to take baby Alexander off with him, and it seems as clear as you can get that the two will be returning.
As for Veronica, who knows. Personally I thought it was a big miss that we have this big aerial battle in the finale – Frayling’s Chinooks gunning for Traveler and his buddies – and Veronica didn’t make a Han Solo-esque return in her B-17. Perhaps she too will return in some future volume. I do know that, save for the next one, Naha took the reigns for the remainder of the series, which apparently gets into even more of a metaphysical direction; if I’m reading the back cover of the last volume correctly, Traveler even goes back in time in that one. But we’ve got a ways to go until we get there, and honestly I’m looking forward to Shirley’s return with the next installment. Especially given that the previous volume was basically his conclusion to the series.