Traveler #9: The Stalking Time, by D.B. Drumm
June, 1986 Dell Books
Traveler takes on a new vibe with this ninth volume, which was written by Ed Naha (who will serve as “D.B. Drumm” for the rest of the series). Apparently feeling that the sub-Road Warrior theme of the previous books has worn thin, Naha introduces the concept that the titular Traveler is now basically a “diplomat” who serves the newly-formed U.S. government. This means that Traveler comes off a bit differently than he did in previous volumes, and truth be told his determination to represent the government seems a little forced.
One thing that’s made clear is that some time has passed in the series. We’re often reminded that the nukes fell “twenty years ago,” whereas previous volumes had it as thirteen or even fifteen years ago. Not only that, but Traveler when we meet him this time is headed up into the mideast, his first time here since before the war, having undertaken a “year-long mission” for newly-elected President Jefferson. When Traveler tangles with a group of roadrats (ie the leather-garbed road scavengers “inspired” by the ones in the Mad Max films), we’re told that they are better-equipped than the ones Traveler fought “a half-dozen years ago” in the western portion of the US. In other words, we’re about five to six years out from the earliest books in the series, and the year – though it’s never outright stated – is now 2009.
In a way The Stalking Time works as a series reset; in previous volumes Traveler always had someone with him, whether it was one of his old army buddies or Jan, the American Indian babe who was the love of Traveler’s life and whatnot. This time Traveler is truly alone, driving along in the Meat Wagon and listening to John Coltrane tapes, and there’s no mention of those earlier comrades. Other that is than a few sequences where Traveler dreams about them. So in a way Traveler lives up to his mantle this time, traveling the post-nuke roadways alone…save that is for the new motive Naha has given him.
Traveler as a diplomat is one thing, but what’s worse is that in The Stalking Time he’s often getting saved by someone else. Traveler does not come off nearly as badass as he did in the superior volumes by John Shirley. And also, whereas Shirley’s installments were fast-moving slices of horror-tinged post-nuke pulp, Naha’s are often sluggish. Even though the novel’s the same short length as those earlier books, it feels a lot longer – the same sentiment I had about Naha’s previous installment The Road Ghost.
I think the reason behind this is that Naha thinks the whole storyline is ridiculous, and one can sense his sneering through the pages. I never got that impression from Shirley’s books; he was clearly having fun with them. Naha on the other hand goes for a pseudo-“spoofy” vibe that’s almost as egregious as in The Destroyer. What I mean to say is, neither the author nor the characters seem to take anything seriously, and Naha is constantly making snarky asides via the narrative or the dialog. Now to be sure it’s not as bad as in The Destroyer, I mean things still matter here and not everything’s a joke, but the vibe is close. Actually if I want to stay within the post-nuke realm, The Last Ranger would be a good comparison, with the same dark humor. Only whereas The Last Ranger has a nihilistic streak, Naha’s Traveler has a satirical streak.
So throughout Naha constantly undercuts the tension he himself creates in the plot with sarcastic rejoinders or snarky comments ridiculing the situation. It just gives the sense that it’s all a joke, and folks if you know anything about me you know I don’t like shit like this in my men’s adventure. I want it straight no chaser. Naha’s sarcastic fun-poking was fine in his Robocop novelization, as it matched the vibe of the movie itself, but here it gets in the way of the post-apocalyptic fun. At any rate, his books so far have suffered greatly in comparison to John Shirley’s; Shirley too might have thought the series was ridiculous, but the reader never got that impression.
But seriously, you know you’re in trouble when Naha spends more time on the trashy décor of a hotel Traveler stays in than on the action scenes. This sequence too is evidence of the new starical vibe of the series; at one point Traveler ingratiates himself into the orbit of a post-nuke warlord who calls himself Dragon, and who has taken over a hotel for his headquarters – one that is done up with themes for various rooms, and Traveler gets one with an “Arabian Nights” theme. And rather than a hockeymasked Lord Humongous type, Dragon is a dapper black man who wears “Day-Glo pimp clothing” and patterns himself after a Blaxploitation character.
However that’s not to say we don’t have any of the customary Traveler horror vibe. There’s a cool part where Traveler almost gets eaten by blind scar-faced ghouls who live underground, only to be saved by a hulking bounty hunter called Angel Eyes. The uncredited artist who did the cover must’ve read the book or gotten some seriously good art direction, as the depiction of Angel Eyes on the cover – iron helmet, flamethrower-esque attachment on his back – is exactly as he’s described in the book. (Though I’m not sure why the artist had to put so much focus on the guy’s ass!) But this is also part of the problem. Angel Eyes saves Traveler, and Traveler is saved a few other times in the book. It just seems at odds with previous installments. That said, Traveler does save Angel Eyes immediately after.
Traveler also seems at odds with his past self in another way – he makes dumb choices. As part of that belabored “ingratiating into Dragon’s forces” scenario, Traveler finds himself sent off with two other stooges to create a diversion. Traveler ties these guys up and leaves them to an overly-complicated fate, driving off. It’s almost as if Naha is telegraphing what will happen next, and sure enough those two eventually show up to blow Traveler’s cover story. The Traveler of the Shirley installments would’ve seen this eventuality and would’ve just blown their brains out to save himself the trouble.
One of the highlights of the novel is the town Traveler comes upon. It seems to have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting, mostly because it was designed before the war as a tourist attraction. There’s also an underground vault of goods that the mayor, a hotstuff blonde who was in kindergarten when the nukes fell, is desperate to keep secret. This underground vault is what Dragon wants, and what Traveler must stop him from getting. But it’s almost as if Naha changes his mind about this, as in the climax it’s the town’s kids who turn out to be Dragon’s target – which leads to a nice action hero-worthy bit of Traveler racing to save a schoolbus full of abducted kids.
The focus on youth is another weird new element to the series. Quite frequently in The Stalking Time we’re reminded that WWIII was 20 years ago, and the young roadrats and such scurrying around were, like Mayor Emma Fowler, just kids when the bombs dropped. Yet they’ve grown up in a world of hate, which is all they know – and thus Traveler sometimes has a hard time shooting these roadrat punks who are trying to kill him. It’s an understandable sentiment on Traveler’s part, yet at the same time it’s nothing that has ever occurred to him in the previous volumes. One really gets the impression here that he’s an old man wandering around a world of angry youth.
Speaking of which there’s a reveal on Angel Eyes that’s crazy but also sort of telegraphed, and also way out of the realm of previous installments. It does however have an unexpected emotional impact, given the reason behind Angel Eyes’s determination to kill Dragon. The problem though is that Traveler sort of sits on the sidelines in the climax, that is after he’s saved that schoolbus of kids. After this Traveler sits around – or perhaps that should be flies around – as Angel Eyes gets his revenge on Dragon. But it’s just another indication of the sort of weakened state Traveler has in this volume.
Maybe it’s just something we’ll have to get used to, as Naha wrote the rest of the series. And given that he wrote the first volume, perhaps Naha’s Traveler can be considered the Traveler. Who knows; as usual I’m probably putting too much thought into it. All told, The Stalking Time was an entertaining installment of Traveler, maybe less violent than previous ones – and certainly less sexually-explicit, with Traveler’s one score occuring off-page at the very end of the novel – but entertaining nonetheless. I mean when it comes to post-nuke pulp, I’d certainly rather read this than Roadblaster.