We come to the final story in the anthology. Some time back, Spidey (and Farscape and Star Trek, etc.) novelist Keith R.A. DeCandido told me he thought “The Stalking of John Doe” was the best story in the book, even better than his own story “Arms and the Man,” which was pretty darn good. Is he right? Certainly, Adam-Troy Castro is the most celebrated of our writers having won the Philip K. Dick award for his novel “Emissaries From the Dead” and having been nominated for Hugos and Nebulas. (Not to mention being the author of the excellent Sinister Six trilogy of novels.) But does that translate to a great story here? Let’s look.
“In Manhattan, stormy nights are crazy nights.” Dr. Gwendolyn Harris is “working the second half of a fifteen-hour shift at the Emergency Psychiatric Unit of the Midtown Hospital and she’d seen more business in the past three hours than she’d expected to see all day.” The cops bring in a number of crazies including “the ranting little man who’d attempted to smuggle a gun into a Rick Jones concert, in what was an apparent attempt to become the next Mark David Chapman.” (You may recall that Rick Jones, former companion to the Hulk, Captain America, and Captain Marvel, was, at one point, a big deal rock star. If you don’t recall, Adam-Troy certainly does. Mark David Chapman, of course, is the man who killed John Lennon.) Shortly before nine PM, Bill The Security Guard motions Gwen over and tells her, “Cops just called. They’re bringing in another John Doe. One they say they don’t recommend placing in the general ward.” He elaborates, “he’s totally out of his head, strong as a moose, and…it took more than a dozen cops working tag-teams to wrestle him into a pair of straitjackets.”
The police bring in the John Doe, “a wiry Caucasian male in his twenties, with short-cropped brown hair and eyes that could have been inviting were they not crazed…wearing nothing but a sodden pair of blue tights,” and it takes five of them to contain him. Suddenly, the John Doe goes berserk, yelling, “He’s after me, he’ll track me down, it’s what he does, it’s what he knows, he’ll find my trail and get me,” and the cops are about to lose control of him when Gwen steps in to calm her patient down. The John Doe looks at her and calls her “Gwendy,” which takes Gwen by surprise. However, when he says, “You can’t be Gwendy. The Goblin killed Gwendy. I saw him kill Gwendy,” she knows he isn’t referring to her. Finally “John” tells her, “the Hunter, that dart he shot me with, it’s some kind of rare psychoactive snake venom derivative, making all the nightmares come back, I’m f-fighting it but…I can’t seem to focus my thoughts…is it really you, Gwendy? Please tell me it’s really you.” Gwen lies, saying, “It’s me,” and the John Doe kisses her wrist and begins to cry.
After “John” is strapped on a bed in a “padded isolation cell,” police Sergeant Monaghan tells Gwen that her patient was rambling on about “lizards, vultures, tarantulas, pumas, cobras, rhinos, black cats, octopuses.” He reports that the “psycho came out of that alley stripped to the waist, wired like all the crackheads you ever saw, screaming about the monsters. Attacked a whole bunch of folks lined up at the Cineplex, calling ‘em murderers and villains, tossing ‘em side to side like it was bowling night or something. Even jumped a poor far guy, calling him the Kingpin. When Stanley and I showed up, he almost tore us to pieces.” Stanley, one of the other cops, disagrees, saying, “He’s hallucinating, sure, and from the way he goes on, he sees enemies everywhere he looks, but even with his strength, even in a state of panic, he’s managed to resist doing anybody any serious harm…For what it’s worth, I think he’s telling the truth. I think he was dosed with something.” The cops leave and Gwen prepares to examine her patient but she asks Gordy and Flack, two beefy security guards, to stand by.
She finds John Doe muttering about Mary Jane, monsters, Felicia and the Hunter.” “[T]here was something about the way John Doe presented it, something about the conviction behind his words, that hit all three of them (Gwen, Gordy, Flack) at the base of the spine.” “John” again recognizes Dr. Harris as “Gwendy” and she tells him she needs to take a blood sample. “I wouldn’t even be in this mess if not for my blood!” he says, “That spider, messing up my life – take it all, why don’t you?...Call Morbius and have yourselves a kegger!” She takes the blood and his vital signs. He starts to tell her his name but changes his mind. When Flack tells him he’s safe from the Hunter, “John” laughs, “You don’t know what he is. He’s coming. And you won’t even slow him down.” Gwen takes the blood sample to Willie the lab tech to be analyzed for “alcohol, crack, PCP, all the other usual psychoactive agents – and one other thing. Snake venom.”
As the night goes on, the weather gets nastier with destructive winds and flooding. Gwen is overwhelmed by psych cases entering the emergency room even as “the cops were besieged by screwball reports of a half-man, half-lion spotted on the rooftops.” At last she gets the lab report on “John’s” blood. Negative for everything except snake venom. But also, Willie adds, “positive for another factor, that had screwed up all the tests until he compensated for it; a factor that was like nothing else he’d ever seen.” The blood is also “superoxygenated.” Gwen returns to the padded cell and finds “John” sitting up on the bed, having gotten out of his restraints. Instinctively, she enters without Gordy and Flack. She finds “John” more coherent but still crazed. He recognizes that she isn’t his Gwendy but also rambles on about the hunter, revealing that he was jumped and dosed and then fled to an alley where he removed his mask. Howling, “Oh, my God! My face! My face! You can see my face!” he covers it with his hands. Gwen tells him, “I don’t care who you are…I don’t care what you look like. I just want to help you.” Realizing, “the Hunter’s coming,” “John” gets up and opens the locked reinforced door “with one annoyed tug,” taking a “fairly large piece of wall” with it. He runs smack into Gordy and Flack but they are unable to stop him. Unexpectedly, however, “John” turns rather than flees, and “made an odd gesture with both hands: hands out, middle two fingers of each curled inward to tap the palm…He seemed genuinely astonished when nothing happened.” This allows Gordy and Flack to tackle him. A third orderly joins them. “John” is still on the verge of getting away when Gwen yells “Stop!” and he does. Again warning her that “the Hunter’s coming,” he faints.
This time, they restrain “John” with every device that they have. Gordy and Flack stand guard duty outside. Gwen worries that “John” may be speaking the truth. She knows, “if it weren’t possible to get reasonable people to believe the rantings of the insane, then a fair percentage of cult leaders and politicians would have been out of work.” But even knowing that, “she couldn’t stop thinking about the Hunter.” Later, she asks the lab tech if the John Doe could be “a paranormal.” “You mean like the Thing?” he says, “Or Captain America? Or one of those guys?” then follows with, “If he was a mutant…you’d need DNA tests for a definitive diagnosis If he was paranormal in some other nonphysical way, there’s usually not much you can do to tell.” This conversation is interrupted when Bill the Security Guard tells them, “Some crazy off the street” has entered the hospital. “Tall, muscular guy, Russian accent, wearing leopard-skin tights and a skinned lion’s head for a vest, if you can believe that…He said he was the hunter and said he’d go wherever he chose to go. The cops who tried to detain him for questioning are now being worked on in the emergency room. So’s some poor guy in the elevator who gave him a lecture about the evils of wearing fur.” Gwen knows the Hunter has arrived. She has Bill barricade the door to the Psych Unit and tells him to prepare to shoot anyone who enters. From his cell, the John Doe starts screaming and pounding on the door, without anyone telling him about the oncoming danger. Gwen sends Gordy and Flack to help Bill. Then she hears “John” ripping the padding off the walls, in order to eliminate its blow-suffusing effects. Gwen, who knows “John” is her only hope, wishes they hadn’t assisted in weakening him. Soon after, “John” tears the door away and, weak and feverish, he confronts Gwen. He tells her he needs gauze to conceal his face from the Hunter. “His eyes were wide, pleading…and sane.” Gwen acts without hesitation, helping him to the supply room where she wraps his head. Then the Hunter arrives.
“John” goes out to face him and Gwen follows soon after. There she experiences the full force and power of the Hunter. “It would have been impossible for any living thing to look at this man and not consider itself his natural prey.” She notices that Bill, Gordy, and Flack have already been disposed of and she sees “John” “facing the Hunter in a position midway between a crouch and the confrontational stance of a boxer.” The Hunter carries “curved jaguar tusks…both dripping with something black and foul.” He lunges forward at “John” and the battle continues, their movements impossibly fast. “Then they sped up, moving with such superhuman speed that Dr. Harris found herself unable to follow it all.” After a protracted battle, the Hunter gets “John” into position for a killing blow. But Gordy “charged across the room and piled into the Hunter with every ounce of his three hundred pound musculature. Gordy had been a star quarterback in college. He’d almost made it to the pros. He didn’t even budge the Hunter.” But he does distract the Hunter long enough for “John” to disappear.
Gwen feels herself lifted off the ground, “up near the ceiling…and she found herself flying back down the corridor.” She soon realizes that “John” is carrying her as he runs along the ceiling. “John” tosses her into the storage room. She sees the Hunter pass by the room and hears him catch up with “John.” She can tell that “John” has lost. She grabs some items from the supply room and follows, only to find the Hunter “holding John Doe off the floor by his neck.” Since “one of the first things she’d ever learned was that with great power comes great responsibility,” Gwen plunges two hypos full of Thorazine into the Hunter’s neck. The Hunter knocks her across the room and growls, “Stupid woman! When I’m done with him, I’ll break..your…neck!” “John,” who still thinks of Gwen on some level as his Gwendy reacts to this. “No! Not again!” he yells and becomes an “engine of destruction.” “A new expression entered the Hunter’s eyes. Helplessness. Terror.” And eventually, the Hunter flees. “John” stops to ask Gwen if she is all right, then he follows the Hunter.
In the aftermath, Gwen asks for and gets the day shift. “The fingerprints and photographs taken of the perpetrator known as John Doe quickly disappeared from the filing room at the precinct house where he’d been booked – a locked room three stories up, with a single window that did not happen to be equipped with a fire escape.” Two weeks later, Gwen finds a dozen red roses in a vase on her desk with a note taped to it. The note reads in part, “It was one of the worst nights of my life, which is saying a lot. I’ve had some bad ones, Doctor; you’ll never know how bad. But this was one of the worst. And you were there for me. You kept me hanging on even when there was nothing to hang on to. And though part of it was your accidental resemblance to a friend long dead and gone, even that wouldn’t have been enough if not for your strength, your courage, and your compassion…Thank you.” Gwen sniffs the flowers and a spider moves from the vase to the back of her hand. “As she studied it, the little thing froze in indecision, unsure which way to run. Tsking with sympathy, she took it to a window and set it free.”
Sort of gets you right here, doesn’t it? I can see why KRAD and others think this is the best story in the book. It is certainly the best if you judge by pure writing. No one else in this collection comes close to Adam-Troy’s ability to convey a stark, noirish atmosphere and its feeling of dingy reality accompanied by the sense of regular people doing their utmost to push that darkness and dinginess away.
The story is presented entirely from Dr. Gwen Harris’ point of view and since Gwen lives in the real world, she views the events of the story from a real world perspective. Suddenly Kraven the Hunter is transformed from a rather mediocre Spidey villain (in the hands of most writers) to a terrifying force whose abilities take your breath away as Adam-Troy conveys the strength and speed of the Hunter in a way comics have never done. “Then, with a blur of movement, the Hunter grabbed John Doe from behind, linking his fingers behind Doe’s head and exerting all his strength in a deadly struggle to break Doe’s neck. Next, another blur of movement, and the Hunter smashed headfirst against the wall, while John Doe leapt forward to press his advantage. Then another blur, and the Hunter held Bill’s desk high above his head while a dazed and staggering John Doe waited for the furniture to fly. Then another blur, and John Doe ran across the surface of the flung desk during the fraction of a second that it was still in the air.” Whoosh. Not even Ditko ever conveyed a Spidey-Kraven fight in such a frenetic fashion and this is all done in prose. Spidey’s otherworldliness is also on display here as Gwen watches him run. “It was a strange, skittering, hunched-over kind of run, that should have been unbearably awkward – but was instead so preternaturally graceful that she had trouble believing that his feet touched the floor.” Gwen’s psychiatric mind is also used by Adam-Troy to present a Spidey-Kraven fight from a new perspective. This is my favorite of those: “She was so lost by the savagery of his gaze – and the understanding that the most terrible thing about him was the way he managed to be murderous and animalistic and cruel while remaining fully and completely sane.”
As mentioned, the story is from Gwen’s point of view and Gwen lives in the real world. Adam-Troy reinforces this by keeping the super-hero fantasy at arm’s length. “John” is never identified as Spider-Man. The closest the Hunter gets to a name is when Gwen hears “John” yell something that sounds like “craving.” Gwen herself is fleshed out in very realistic terms. (Gordy, Flack, Bill, Willie, and the cops are also nicely drawn.) We learn that she is almost too beautiful to gain respect in her job, we learn about her day-to-day, how she copes with fear and pressure. Put yourself in Gwen’s job or Gordy’s job in the real world and imagine the super-powerful entering that world. You wouldn’t accept it until directly faced with it either. The concept of super-heroes isn’t even mentioned until about halfway through the story. This is a unique spin on the super-hero story but it has one flaw that kept nagging at me. In order to ultimately have a Spidey-Kraven battle, the story must take place (much as Adam-Troy may want to do sleight of hand to distract us) in a world with super-heroes. Gwen and Willie the lab tech finally acknowledge this when she asks if “John” could be paranormal and Willie says, “You mean like the Thing? Captain America?” So, we are in the Thing/Captain America world. But if so, why is everyone so dense about “John’s” identity? Here is a man who is wearing blue tights and has great strength and leaping ability. At various points he mentions the Goblin, the Hunter, lizards, vultures, tarantulas, pumas, cobras, rhinos, black cats, octopi, Kingpin, the spider, and Morbius. And none of the cops, none of the hospital staff can figure out what any of this means? If you live in the Marvel Universe, shouldn’t someone think of “super-heroes” well before Gwen does and shouldn’t someone figure out this is Spider-Man? Adam-Troy is weaving a delicate tapestry here with one foot solidly in the real world and one toe in the Marvel one. But that toe is there and the cops and the hospital staff should be aware of it.
Before I wrap up, the whole issue of Kraven’s Last Hunt/Mad Dog Ward has to be addressed. This story feels, in some ways, to be a combination of those two stories which followed one after the other in Web of Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man back in 1987. This book came out in 1997, which implies that Adam-Troy’s story was influenced by those comic issues. Odd, though, that this story is listed in the Continuity Guide as taking “place in recent Spider-Man continuity” even though Kraven is long dead in that continuity in 1997. (Also interesting that the last story to be in previous continuity is Keith’s “Arms and the Man” which occurs right after Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 which came out in 1981.) All this implies to me that these stories were written and this book prepared well before it actually came out. If so, then perhaps both Kraven’s Last Hunt and the Mad Dog Ward were inspired by this story rather than the other way around. It feels that way, anyhow.
Let’s eat everything on our plates before we leave the table. Alex Maleev, perhaps best known for his Daredevil work, starts this whole story off with a strong illustration showing a young man in a padded cell, his arms crossed, his head lowered, his body half in shadow. Like the story, this illustration does not say this is Spider-Man but gives every indication that it is. Well done. And a quibble: Gordy is stated to be 300 pounds and was once a quarterback that almost made the pros. Really? A quarterback? 300 pounds? Did he do nothing but eat after his retirement?
It’s a great story but it’s not my favorite in the book. (Sorry, KRAD!) In spite of all its strengths, I can’t shake the feeling that the merging of worlds is less than satisfying; that Spidey and Kraven should not be such mysteries in this world. That was going to be enough for me to give this story four and a half webs but I’ve just looked at my ratings for all the other stories in the book and seen that I gave five webs to a couple of stories I liked less than this. (Cut me some slack, please. These reviews have been written over a five-year period.) So, I guess this one is five webs as well. Going by that standard, actually, KRAD’s “Arms and the Man” should be five webs, too.
A simple average for the whole book comes to a little over three webs. But there really are some great stories here so let’s round it all the way up to 4 webs.