Monday, July 25, 2016

The Last Ranger #3: The Madman's Mansion

The Last Ranger #3: The Madmans Mansion, by Craig Sargent
December, 1986  Popular Library

Strangely, I didn’t recall much of this third volume of The Last Ranger, though I’m sure I eagerly snatched it off the WaldenBooks shelves in ’86 and quickly read it, just as I had the previous two volumes. Yet as I re-read The Madman’s Mansion all these years later, damned if any of it seemed familiar; only Norm Eastman’s typically-great cover sparked anything in the dusty ol’ memory banks.

At any rate this one opens just two days after the previous volume. Hero Martin Stone speeds from Boulder, Colorado, where as we’ll recall he took on both a death-cult and a biker gang called The Guardians of Hell. Stone is determined to save his cipher of a sister, April, who was abducted by the Guardians and taken off to Vernal, Utah, where she will be put into the depraved hands of Poet, aka The Dwarf, a quadrapalegic sadist who goes around in a wheelcair with guns in the armrests and who turns out to be a lot more important than he seemed in his previous appearances – from his fortress in Vernal he hosts a deluxe watering hole for the new rulers of this post-nuke ‘90s America, from Mafioso to drug dealers to bikers.

While it takes its time getting to the good stuff, The Madman’s Mansion at least opens with the outrageous gore Jan Stacy (aka “Craig Sargent”) excelled in. Stone is waylaid by a group of bikers as he continues his escape through Colorado, riding as ever his armored and armed Harley Electroglide with ever-faithful pit bull Excaliber clutching the seat behind him. Our hero makes short work of the hapless scum: “But Stone was already firing forward again, taking out one more, with a stream of five slugs that scissored down his face, cutting a line from forehead to chin that seemed to just open up and spew out everything within it – eyeballs, brain tissue, tongue, and teeth – into a bubbling stew of parts in the road, a steaming smorgasbord just inches from the gushing corpse that dove forward into the white snow.”

But soon after this opening chaos the book settles into a measured pace for the next hundred or so pages. We do however get a return trip to “the Bunker,” ie the nuclear shelter Stone spent the previous five years in, buried in the Colorado mountains. I always enjoyed these scenes when I read this series as a kid, but even here I had no recollection of the Bunker sequence in this volume, which sees Stone opening up tons of canned food for Excaliber as repayment for saving Stone’s life so many times. Afterwards the pit bull is a bloated lump that can only lay in misery on the floor – once again Stacy develops a humorous rapport between man and dog, with many funny scenes between the two. 

Stone again consults the sort of proto-internet his father, Major Stone, left behind for him in the Bunker, a computer interface which answers any military-strategy question Stone might have. In this case he asks how a lone person can attack a heavily-guarded fortress, for Stone has learned that the Dwarf’s Vernal retreat – which was once a posh ski lodge – is guarded by hundreds of men, many of them former insane asylum patients. But Stacy holds off on the carnage, with the book sort of detouring into some of the goofier stuff one might encounter in Stacy’s other post-nuke series, Doomsday Warrior, as Stone stops off in “Mom’s Diner,” a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Colorado, where he gets in a poker game that becomes a gunfight.

Here Stacy introduces a character I had no recollection of: Dr. Abraham Reagan Kennedy, an old hippie-type who drives around the blasted country in a “house-truck” (complete with chimney), selling “Certified Snake Oil.” Stacy is much too enamored with Kennedy, giving over pages and pages to his blatherings, particularly when it comes to selling snake oil. But Kennedy proves to be Stone’s in to the Dwarf’s resort, as Kennedy is hired each year to put on a magic show there. And guess what, that’s just where he’s headed right now. So Stone hauls his massive bike onto Kennedy’s big truck (formerly a moving truck), which is both a home and a store on wheels, stuffed with the various bric-a-brac Kennedy sells to eager clientele.

More flashbacks to Doomsday Warrior ensue as Stone and Kennedy drive into the freak weather that was customary in that earlier series: a tornado-blizzard that goes on for too many pages and, despite the danger Stacy strives to convey, doesn’t have a chance in hell of actually killing our hero, his new best friend, or his faithful dog. If anything this scene just provides the setup for another goofy Stone-Excaliber moment, as a mud-drenched Stone, who rode out the storm from beneath the truck, demands that Excaliber – who stayed nice and clean inside the truck – jump out and also get muddy. This the dog does with joyful aplomb, once again coming out on top in this latest goofy exchange with his master.

But a bit after page 100 The Madman’s Mansion takes a change for the better, abruptly becoming the most lurid offering yet. The Dwarf’s plush resort is of course the titular “mansion,” and here insanity reigns; the nation’s new “elite” come here to cavort in the most outrageous, most sleazy manners possible, and Jan Stacy plumbs the darkest recesses of his capable imagination for some truly over-the-top shit, like a roulette wheel where the “ball” is a severed head to crazed “bloodcleaner” maids who worry about “flying penises” that might eat them. The Dwarf has staffed the place with former asylum patients, and as we know Stacy had a penchant for nutcases-turned-enforcers, as memorably shown in C.A.D.S. #1.

The former high-class ski lodge is now the stomping grounds of bikers, Mafia bigwigs, and scantily-clad female chattel; women are so disposable here that a shocked Stone even finds himself stumbling over casually-discarded female corpses as he’s shown to his grand suite by a jaded preteen bellhop. Later Stone will find sections of the lodge catering to the most perverted whims imaginable, including a room where girls are strung up and slowly sliced to ribbons. The Dwarf also runs a lucrative “white slavery” business, and Stone will gradually discover that this is the fate the sadist has in mind for April. Meanwhile Stone, after killing a Mafia thug in a knife fight, enjoys the explicit sex scene which is mandatory for the series.

I forgot to mention – Stone, due to the events in the previous volume, is wearing a disguise: he’s now “Vito ‘Pimp’ Staloni,” Mafia bigshot from New York, clad in a pink pimpsuit with violet sunglasses (the clothing provided by Kennedy). At any rate a blonde bimbo with an awesome bod named Triste is so turned on by Stone’s killing of the Mafia thug that she throws herself at him. After dancing in a room with an all-female, all-naked band and mutilated corpses arrayed along a clear floor beneath the dancers’s feet, Triste and Stone head back to his room for a “long night of super sex.”

Stacy devotes the entirety of Chapter Fourteen to the sexual shenanigans, and unlike in the Doomsday Warrior books it doesn’t get very purple-prosed, instead sticking to hardcore description throughout. It goes on for pages and pages as these two get along in the most XXX-detailed manner imaginable: “It was as if he were mining her. The harder he pumped, the more she seemed to open. As if her body had lived just for this night, her breasts just for his hands to squeeze, her entrance just for him to find the full depth of. Then he suddenly seemed to go half mad himself and started banging into her like a jackhammer.” And so on!!

Finally, in the last third of the book, things started to get somewhat familiar – and indeed made me wonder if the book had been so OTT that 12-year-old me just couldn’t handle it and promptly forgot everything! Anyway Stone, after checking out more of the Resort’s horrors, finds a slavery auction going on, beautiful, nude young women trotted out and pawed by an obese auctioneer. Who will be surprised when one of them turns out to be none other than April? Stone bids desperately for his sister and wins at exorbitant cost, even though he has no money. But it turns out to be a trap – when he goes to collect his winnings, Stone is instead bonked on the head and captured by Dwarf, who has been expecting him.

Here The Madman’s Mansion becomes even more like an ‘80s horror paperback. First we get a spine-chiller of a chapter where Stone is cuffed amd thrown in a brackish pool while rats, big centipedes, and various other creepy critters come after him. He passes out and comes to at a dinner table with Dwarf himself, presented with a banquet of delicacies. But man Stacy was in a gross-out mood when he penned this one, as it turns out the food is human flesh – “deveined” eyeballs for potatoes and even a poor young woman (nude, of course) with a spigot in her throat, so the Dwarf can tap it and hurridly share the “wine” before she dies! There’s even a bizarre bit reminiscent of The Butcher #2 where a massive snake eats another girl.

Stone, still in cuffs, must now fight a seven-foot mutant with “muscles that would have made Arnold Schwarzenegger turn in his bodybuilding badge,” with a face that’s “a mass of tissue like bloody pudding.” This knock-down, drag-out fight is particularly brutal, as is everything else in this volume, with Stone literally knocking the mutant’s brain out! When an outraged Dwarf orders Stone’s death, hell suddenly breaks out with the appearance of Kennedy, tossing grenades. Deus ex machina be damned, Kennedy also has the “blueprints” for the Resort, and in the commotion they escape to the elevator shafts and rappel up to Dwarf’s floor-spanning suite on the 18th floor.

Even though he was just down there in the chaos of the ground floor, Dwarf’s already somehow up here on the top floor – who cares about realism, anyway? – and he’s leading a bunch of dudes in robes as they prepare to sacrifice poor April, nude and nailed to a cross! Did I mention it’s Christmas? With “tommy guns” roaring Stone and Kennedy save the day, and here occurs about the only thing I remembered from The Madman’s Mansion, as a victorious Stone kicks Dwarf off his wheelchair, picks him up by the throat, and hurls the misshapen bastard out the window! Indeed I got such a vicarious thrill out of this all those years ago that I remember eagerly discussing this scene with a fellow Last Ranger fan I ran into at the Country Club Mall in LaVale, Maryland sometime in early 1987, when the fourth volume came out – and I remember the kid and I both reacted with the same excitement when we saw that the fourth volume was sitting there on the shelf; back in those pre-internet days you had no idea when new books were coming out.

Unfortunately though, we readers see that Dwarf does not die – he plummets through the frozen-over pool and bobs to the surface, “to mean to sink,” and as I recall he returns in the next volume to wreak his vengeance. Meanwhile Stone’s acting a little too concerned over April; intentionally or not, Stacy sort of hints at a more-than-siblings relationship between the two, with Stone fretting over the girl’s nude body. At any rate he lets her and Kennedy escape separately – and believe it or not April finally gets a few lines of dialog, revealing a fiery temper – while Stone meanwhile kills a bunch of guards, blows up the resort, and saves a mack truck full of “slavewhores.”

 Anyway, this one was pretty crazy when it got going, but the middle section was a bit too padded and goofy – I could’ve done with less of Kennedy’s “snake oil” blatherings. But man when it got out there it really got out there, and many sections of The Madman’s Mansion could’ve come out of the “splatterpunk” subgenre of horror fiction that was popular at the time.


thedarkman said...

Thanks again to the hardest working blogger on the Internet! Your posts are so well written and entertaining, I look forward to each new post. I have a bunch of these Last Ranger books, and I look forward to wallowing in the cheese and filth for a few hours! This entire genre of paperback pulp adventure of the 60's-90's deserves the same level of respect and interest that is doled out for the pulps of the 20's-50's...someone ought to write a book about it...;)

halojones-fan said...

Driving a super-modified RV through weird weather and mutant animals in the postapocalypse? Sounds like Zelazny's "Damnation Alley"...

Unknown said...

I can only echo what thedarkman said. It's always a treat to read one of your reviews, Joe. Keep up the hard work!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!