Monday, December 31, 2018

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge, by Craig Sargent
January, 1988  Popular Library

The sixth volume of The Last Ranger is basically splatterpunk horror; instead of a post-nuke action yarn it’s a grim, gory, often-unsettling work by an author who clearly has death on his mind. A sense of foreboding looms over the novel, with hero Martin Stone often considering himself “lucky to still be alive,” yet knowing that death will be coming for him very soon.

Not much is known about Jan Stacy, other than that he died of AIDS in 1989. It’s never a good idea to assume, but in this case I can’t help it – the tone of The Warlord’s Revenge seems to be courtesy a writer who has been given a death sentence. Not to use the word again so soon, but “unsettling” really sums up the vibe of this book. It’s not so much an action story as it is an exegesis on death. After 180+ pages of small pages the cumulative effect is the reader shares the author’s sentiment of despair.

This has been the general vibe of the series, but normally Stacy tempers it with black comedy. This is also somewhat true of The Warlord’s Revenge, but the feeling is lost beneath the overbearing grim tone. Stacy seems to be at pains to gross the reader out from the get-go. The novel opens moments after the previous volume ended; Stone and his claptrap crew of American Indians and rogue soldiers watch as a mushroom cloud expands on the horizon, the crazed General Patton having fired a nuke at them in the previous book’s climax.

Stone and his crew escaped, but the brother of Merya (aka Stone’s latest hot American Indian flame – so far as the subgenre is concerned, the post-nuke US is almost entirely populated by hot American Indian women) was caught in the nuclear flames and melted. The Warlord’s Revenge opens on this very scene, with the group gawking at the gory puddle that was once a brave warrior – a puke-inducing puddle that Stacy goes on to describe for pages and pages, giving us our first indication of just what sort of a nasty book this is going to be. At length Stone must give the thing burial, per Merya’s wishes, and Stacy goes full-bore on the grotesque images, from steaming organs exploding to the rancid smell of the melted goop as Stone shovels it up and tosses it in a makeshift grave. 

Through all this the mushroom cloud continues to expand until it goes into the atmosphere and becomes a broiling black cloud that will follow Martin Stone throughout the the book. Another form of death that chases him relentlessly. In fact the spewing acid rain is a sort of motif Stacy returns to again and again, with the novel even ending on the image. Death is everywhere in The Warlord’s Revenge, as are the ghosts of the past – Stone again and again mulls over the futility of his life, how he is “already dead” but doesn’t know it, how the entire planet is doomed.

It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by fools. The book starts off one way, and admittedly I’m glad it changes course soon after. But initially it looks like we’re going to get a full book about Stone being saddled with his new responsibility as leader of these Indians and tank-riding soldiers. But eventually he sends them off on their own journey – dispensing anti-rad pills to people in the nuke blast radius – and gets back to being the loner we prefer him to be. It just takes a while to get there. We have to deal for a while with the annoying Leaping Elk, an Indian who resents “white man” Stone and goes out of his way to defy him, even putting his hand on a radiation-burned tank. This results in Leaping Elk’s hand being deformed to grotesque proportions, and Stacy goes for more gross-out stuff as he waves it around in his growing insanity.

Stacy doesn’t forget the hardcore stuff, though; despite the general air of grimy despair, Stone still finds the time to bang Merya in full-bore graphic splendor. Stacy has always delivered some of the more explicit moments of sleaze in the genre, and he doesn’t disappoint here: “The entire organ entered the beautiful Cheyenne warrior in a second, stunning her with its thickness and length.” After which Stone sends Merya on her, uh, merry way; Stacy himself seems to be bored with the whole “Stone as a leader of men” idea, and the two say their goodbyes, Merya going off with her tribe.

Stone himself is headed for a remote mountaintop retreat in Coloroda his family once used as a vacation spot. Early in the book we get a brief return to Stone’s post-nuke bunker, that paradise-like fortress with running water, electricity, food, and everything else one could possibly want – you still have to wonder why Stone just doesn’t find himself a woman and just stay there permanently, forgetting about the hellish outside world. But Stone finds that April, his perennially-missing or abducted sister, has been here before him, leaving a note behind. The last time we saw April was at the end of #3: The Madman’s Mansion, where she escaped the Dwarf’s depraved mansion with the assistance of snake oil salesman Doc Kennedy.

April informs Stone that the Mafia are after them, in revenge for the events in that previous book; Stone killed a Mafia bigwig named Scalzanni, and now his brother, Joey, has sworn revenge. Joey Scalzanni then is the “warlord” of the title, but he’s not in the book much and doesn’t really make an impression on the reader, other than that he was a butcher pre-WWIII and now uses his skills with hooked blades to fillet his opponents. Now he runs a “shopping mall of crime” in Keenesburg, Colorado, as Stone learns from a dying Doc Kennedy – Stone coming across the man’s stab-riddled body at that mountaintop retreat, left to die in the ever-present acid rain. As expected, the Mafia tracked them down, Scalzanni stabbed Doc a whole bunch, and April’s been friggin’ kidnapped yet again. She is of course being held as bait at Scalzanni’s place.

Stacy’s version of the Mafia is sort of the logical progression of the one in James Dockery’s The Butcher; rather than goons in suits who discuss “whackings” over pasta, Stacy’s are superderformed ghouls, more monsters than men. Scalzanni’s “shopping mall” takes the perversions of the Dwarf’s mansion in the third volume and expands upon them – a customer can buy every weapon possible, but also there’s a section of nude women in chains up for the highest bidder. But this is all kid’s stuff, really. There’s a noxious swamp out back where corpses are tossed – each room with a handy chute for cadaver disposal – and again it’s all very splatterpunk with the copious descriptions of floating eyeballs and guts. Even Stone’s faithful dog Excaliber pukes at the sight(!). There’s also a nightclub where a male and a female corpse have sex for the viewing enjoyment of the audience, controlled by mechanisms inserted inside their decomposing forms.

In addition there’s also a torture wing, in which Stone briefly finds himself – he’s knocked out and captured twice in the book, almost back to back. To make it even more lame, he’s saved both times by an “old whore” named Peaches who now serves as a house hooker at Scalzanni’s; she was one of the hookers Stone freed from the Dwarf’s place at the end of the third volume. Here Stone has the soles of his feet punctured, but lamely Scalzanni has to take off for a deal or something, thus leaving Stone the opportunity to escape. He frees the other victims in the torture chamber, and the sad bunch serves up another example of the morbid “humor” that runs throughout:

Not one of them should have been alive. [Stone] walked over to them, and those that could, stared back at him with barely opened eyes. One guy with his head in a spike-filled mask; one guy with his body in a coffin piercing him from neck to groin; one guy with nails hammered into his head so he looks[sp] like a bloody ice-cream cone with three-penny sprinkles; one guy with all his skinned peeled off so he looked like an overgrown, peeled grape; and one guy with only the top of him left, and all his guts ready to spill out over the floor like a broken garbage bag. Just the kind of crowd Stone loved to hang out with. 

This is just one of the many splatterpunk-esque elements in the novel. There’s also a part straight out of a horror novel where Stone comes across an army of cockroaches on the destroyed highways of Colorado. He also runs into a pack of post-nuke flagellants who whip themselves into gory ribbons in atonement for mankind’s sins. In fact this horror element takes over the novel, to the extent that there isn’t much action per se, at least not when compared to previous books. It’s mostly just Stone ruminating over the futility of this hellish world as he drives across Colorado, encountering one grotesque horror after another.

Even the stuff with Scalzanni isn’t developed as much as it should be, though his send-off is appropriate, taking place by that corpse swamp behind his mall. The finale brings the cover painting (again by Norm Eastman) to life: Stone gets on his Harley and barrels through the mall, firing the machine gun and rocket launcher on his bike. He ends up destroying the whole place, which proves to be kind of dumb, as right afterwards that radioactive cloud that’s been following him the entire novel finally breaks, and as we leave him Stone is scrambling for shelter from the acid rain.

Overall I found The Warlord’s Revenge too grim and dour to be fun; I hate to speculate, but the idea I got from the book is that Stacy knew his own end was near and was sort of working through things in the text. Of course, my interpretation is likely colored by my knowledge of what happened to Stacy, but that’s the impression I got – to the extent that this one sort of creeped me out. Which is recommendation enough to check out the book, I guess. I didn’t read this one when I was a kid – the previous volume was the last one I got – but I’m curious what I would’ve thought of it at the time.


Grant said...

I know the written versions of his stories very haphazardly (I'm afraid), but the description of that scene of the dead couple being used as entertainment sounds like part of a disturbing Richard Matheson story called "Dance of the Dead."

Johny Malone said...

Great intuition, Joe. Perhaps all post-apocalyptic literature was influenced by the bleak climate imposed by the AIDS epidemic in those years.