Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Last Ranger #1

The Last Ranger #1, by Craig Sargent
May, 1986  Popular Library

I had a blast re-reading this first volume of The Last Ranger. The first time I read it I was 11 years old, it was 1986, and I’d eagerly grabbed a copy of the book from the shelf at WaldenBooks. In fact over the years scenes from this novel have remained with me, so it was sort of strange to read the book again these decades later, almost like déjà vu.

The series ran for 10 volumes and is one of the best examples of the post-nuke pulp subgenre. I bought and read the first five volumes as they were published, after which my interest in the genre petered out and I moved on to sci-fi; I do know though that The Last Ranger is a rare men’s adventure series that offers a very definite conclusion in its final volume (spoiler alert: the entire planet explodes!).

But man, I was really into this series, like in a big way. I’ve written about how crazy I was about Phoenix Force, but I was just as crazy about The Last Ranger. I remember eagerly checking the shelves every time I went to WaldenBooks to see if the latest volume had come out.   And it’s easy to see why I loved it so much, as the series is obviously catered to the interests of a young boy – it’s all about a studly dude in his early twenties who, while trying to both escape from and live up to his father’s shadow, goes out to kick mutant ass and take names in a post-apocalyptic USA, armed to the teeth and riding around on a customized Harley chopper. Plus he has a pet pit bull!

As a kid I took the “Craig Sargent” by-line at face value, but in recent years as I’ve learned about house names I’ve begun to suspect it was a pseudonym. And it turns out it was, as according to this site Craig Sargent was in reality Jan Stacy – aka one half of the duo that was Ryder Stacy. This is obvious upon reading The Last Ranger, which comes off very much like Doomsday Warrior, only slightly less cartoonish. Also there’s a strange bit of irony with the Last Ranger series, which ended in 1989, the same year Stacy himself passed away, dying of AIDS…makes one wonder what thoughts went behind that whole “destruction of Earth” series conclusion.

This first volume is much more concerned with characterization than the genre norm, and indeed for the first half doesn’t much come off like a men’s adventure at all. (No fear, though, because in the second half that patented Ryder Stacy insanity kicks into full gear.) We are treated to a very long backstory about our protagonist’s father before we even get to the actual hero of the tale. Major Clayton R. Stone is that father (we'll just go ahead and assume he's related to Mark Stone), and we read about how as a teenager he was able to bluff his way into the army during WWII, becoming such a great soldier that he continued to fight in Korea and Vietnam, despite raking in a fortune in his civilian life as a munitions developer.

Martin Stone is the series protagonist, and we learn that he was born in 1972, Clayton Stone finally having met a woman and settled down (in between heading off to whatever war was currently going on). Humorously enough, Clayton Stone’s wife doesn’t get any dialog or hardly any narrative space. But we learn how Clayton Stone would try to raise young Martin in the ways of the military, but how Martin was very disinterested. Meanwhile, another child was born: April, a pretty blonde who is given even less narrative time than her mother. This leads to some unintentional comedy when later in the novel April is abducted and Martin Stone must save her; the reader is moreso like, “Stone has a sister?

Also it must be mentioned that Stacy confuses us by referring to both father and son as “Stone.” For the purposes of the review though “Stone” will refer only to Martin, who again is the true hero of the series, which isn’t very apparent throughout the first half of The Last Ranger #1. Instead we read how Clayton Stone becomes certain after the Vietnam era that a nuclear war is imminent, and thus uses his millions to buld a massive bomb shelter complex deep in the Rocky Mountains, “about 150 miles north of Denver.” This by the way is around the same location as Century City in Doomsday Warrior, so either this was an in-joke from Jan Stacy or he and Ryder Syvertsen were just crazy about that particular region.

Everyone believes the old Major is insane, but Clayton Stone becomes more and more certain that civilization is doomed. And so it is that before dawn on February 13, 1990 Clayton Stone awakes and knows in his bones that today is the fated day. He forces his family into their cars and they hightail it through the mountains, arriving at their bomb shelter complex just as the Russian-fired nuclear missiles begin to hit US soil. A double irony with that 1990 date is for one of course the fact that Jan Stacy himself didn’t live to see it, but also that this is one of the few post-nuke pulps in which WWIII doesn’t occur in 1989 – for whatever reason, ’89 was like the go-to year for writers of post-nuke pulps.

Stuck in the sprawling complex, which features all the comforts of home and more, the family goes about their life, though Stacy really doesn’t elaborate, and there are no scenes with all four of them together. Again, one could even forget there’s a Mrs. Stone and teenager April, as Stacy solely focuses upon Major Stone and son. Now that the world has ended, Stone finally heeds his father’s pleas, and thus begins to train with him, the Major bestowing all of the skills and knowledge he has learned from his many years of being a Ranger. This goes on for a period of five years, after which we’re to believe that Stone is as tough and skilled as his father, even a better shot than him (a gun range and massive arsenal being in the complex, naturally). Personally I had a very hard time believing this, given that battlefield skills are borne out of experience, not lessons from dad.

But, conveniently enough after training is complete, Major Stone dies, suffering a massive heart attack at the dinner table. (This was one of those scenes I’ve remembered over the years.) Over the past five years (the date now 1995, and Stone now 23 years old) the Major has told the family that radiation has scarred the nation and that not only is it unsafe out there, but no one survived. This by the way is another big miss on the Major’s part: his stated goal for building the complex was that the Stones would possibly have to repopulate the Earth…but meanwhile it’s just him, his wife, and their two kids! The least the Major could’ve done was bring along a mate for Stone and April, but whatever… But now that the Major’s dead Stone is able to get into his father’s previously-barred radio room, and there Stone discovers that not only is there barely any radiation out there, but also that mass pockets of hummanity have in fact survived.

Stone, who has always fought against his dad, gets really pissed at the old man, believing the family has been lied to for five years. So they all hop in a Winnebago (the complex of course well stocked with vehicles as well) and head out…where they are immediately attacked by Road Warrior-esque bikers, Stone beaten nearly to death, and both his mom and April raped and killed (though Stone later learns that April wasn’t killed and was indeed abducted by the bikers).

Pulled half-dead from the scene of the massacre, Stone is saved by a group of American Indians, of the Ute tribe. Humorously, despite civilization having ended a mere five years ago, the Utes act like it was all long in the past, talking about how “the white man” destroyed the world and etc. They also hate whites, something often drilled into Stone, but due to the obligatory “Indian honor” of pulp they are duty-bound to help the young man heal. This sequence goes on for quite a while, as Stone lives with the Utes, taking part in their ceremonies and getting closer to Chamma, an of course beautiful young Indian girl who is the only one who will really talk to Stone.

My theory is that Jan Stacy was the writer behind the psychedelic/metaphysical stuff in Doomsday Warrior, a theory which seems to be proven here with a long “magic mushroom” trip Stone goes on with the Ute shaman and several others. This is a pretty interesting sequence, with Stone et al hanging above the ground from hooks that are embedded in their chest muscles; Stone hallucinates his mother and father coming for him as zombies. And just as Doomsday Warrior was always sure to include a sex scene, so too does The Last Ranger #1, Stone and Chamma getting it on in pretty explicit detail.

Finally Stone has recovered and he leaves the Utes, trekking back to the complex. Along the way he makes his first kill, offing a pair of bikers. (Bikers come off really badly in this novel!) Stone’s return to his bunker-complex home is another of those scenes I’ve somehow always remembered, but strangely Stacy does little to play up on the feelings that arise in Stone as he comes back to the now-ghostly complex in which he shared the previous five years of his life with his now dead or missing family members. Not that this sort of soul-plumbing is typically expected from a men’s adventure novel, but as mentioned The Last Ranger #1 is a bit more focused on characterization than most others in the genre.

Another memorable sequence is Stone’s discovery of a previously-locked room in which his father kept various computers; on one of them the Major recorded all of his thoughts on warfare in encyclopedia form, for the express purpose that Stone could refer to it – and also in one of those narratively-convenient deals, the Major has also left behind an “if you’re reading this it means I’m dead” message in which he explains to Stone that he lied to the family because he knew the world would be a dangerous place, so he wanted them to stay in the bunker for at least 15 years. Of course, Stone now knows his father was right.

But now it’s payback time, and in the final quarter the novel really kicks into gear. Chamma is the one who informed Stone that April was still alive; she told him that when the Utes arrived they saw the girl hauled off, and she figures the bikers took her to Denver. She further informed him that Denver is the domain of the Guardians of Hell, an army of bikers lead by Rommel. This time Stone will be prepared for the outside world, and thus he breaks out the weaponry; the novel features the gun-porn that was mandatory in the ‘80s, which itself marks it from Doomsday Warrior, which was more fantasy-based in its weaponry, what with its “9mm assault rifles” and other imaginary guns. Stone also breaks out a customized Harley Electroglide 1200, which has a friggin’ machine gun strapped along it!

Stone now fully becomes “The Last Ranger,” using his dad’s data storehouse of warfare strategy and the bunker arsenal to kill biker scum real good. Stacy doles out the gory violence expected from “Ryder Stacy,” with lots of descriptions of brains blowing out and sliding across the floor and etc. Stacy also serves up the unexpected and quirky characters Doomsday Warrior was known for, especially in the form of Guardians of Hell boss and Denver ruler Rommel, a 400-pound mass of muscle who snorts ether and practices “Zen nihilistic hedonism.”

Insinuating himself into the Denver underworld as a biker looking for his break, Stone wastes one of Rommel’s goons in that tried-and-true method of gaining a boss’s trust by showing him how weak his underlings are. Stacy delivers a bunch of oddball characters here, from Queenie, the beautiful but sadistic leader of the Slits (ie the female branch of the Guardians of Hell) who literally emasculates any man she has sex with (and of course she immediately has her eyes on Stone), to Poet, an armless and legless radiation-scarred dwarf who goes around on a customized electric wheelchair, spouting “poetic” prophecies and warnings.

Stacy gets wild here, from an orgy sequence (in which an armless and legless whore is even brought out for Poet!) to a part where Stone has to eat the heart of the Guardian he killed as part of his initiation into the biker army. Meanwhile he searches for April, eventually figuring that she’s being safeguarded with several other pretty young women as part of the “rewards” that will be given out for the Guardian Olympics, a biker event of various matches. Stone signs up for the marksman contest, scoring the best shots due to his expert sharpshooting skills (and the target of course is a fresh corpse!).

Unfortunately it all ends too quickly; strange given the elaborate and leisurely build of the first three quarters of the novel. But upon winning the match and heading for where the girls are stashed, Stone is ambushed by the Slits, and wakes up bound and surrounded by the biker women, Queenie informing him that they’re all going to screw Stone, after which she’s going to hack off his dick and kill him! After freeing himself and taking out Queenie (also hurling Poet up against a wall, the freakish dwarf having showed up to watch the festivities), Stone heads back to Denver and sets the place to blow, leading to a quick but final confrontation with Rommel.

However April is still a captive by novel’s end, having been spirited away by one of the Guardians while Stone was being held by the Slits. This as I recall is a recurring storyline with the series; I think Stone searches for April for like the first three or four volumes. Also as I recall the Poet returns, though I do remember Stone gets vengeance on him at some point, once again throwing him somewhere – in fact, I remember standing in WaldenBooks one day in 1987 or so and discussing the series with some other kid who happened to be there, as we were both standing in the men’s adventure section (which was nestled between the Westerns and Sci-Fi sections) and started talking about how much we both loved The Last Ranger, and further how happy we were that Poet finally got his comeuppance.

One thing Stone does however rescue by novel’s end is a pit bull, part of a menagerie of various animals Rommel kept imprisoned in one of his bars. The dog refuses to leave Stone, even chasing after him when he drives away from Denver. So Stone decides to keep the dog, but hasn’t named it yet, and in fact I can’t recall the dog’s name. However it too becomes a mainstay of the series.

Anyway as the unwieldy length of this review will attest, I am very fond of this series, and having re-read the first volume I can happily report it’s not just from nostalgia. The Last Ranger #1 offers up pretty much all you could want from an ‘80s slice of post-nuke pulp, and if my memory serves me the ensuing volumes only get better and better.


AndyDecker said...

As you loved this series, were you ever into Ahern's Survivalist? If one reads your description, it had nearly the same basis. A bunker, a familiy, etc. no mutants though if I remember correctly. Before it became later this weird (and ridiculous) sf-series.

Joe Kenney said...

Andy, thanks for the comment, and the Survivalist I definitely remember from back in the day; it was by far the most popular of all those post-nuke series, or so it seemed at the time, as you'd see it everywhere. However I was never able to find #1, and the series appeared to be very continuity-heavy...I do remember reading one or two of them anyway, but about the only thing I recall these days is the protagonist's matching pearl-handled .45s, or whatever they were. I've thought about checking them out sometime...I also know what you mean about the weird stuff, with like a time-jump a thousand years into the future with unfrozen Nazis, right?

AndyDecker said...

Yup, I can't remember the specifics any longer but the series made a time-jump after #9 where the Commies and bizarrely some new Nazis had build new nations after 500 years.

Like all of Ahern's stuff it was very continuity heavy. And very family orientated. The hero put his children and wife into cyrogenic sleep, but let his children age in stages so they were adults after the time-jump.

One of Ahern's strength was that he wrote very likable straightforward "clean" heroes. Some of his novels like "Yakusa Tattoo" are still a good read, in the Chuck Norris/Mel Gibson Buddy Cop movie vein, others have aged badly though.

Zwolf said...

Always loved the Last Ranger. It's definitely one of the most entertaining series, kind of like Kamandi without the animal-people. I don't think I ever got around to reading the last few volumes, but I have them all and need to start them over at some point.

ScottyK said...

I was a big fan of these "post WWW III" books back in the 80's, with Doomsday Warrior and The Last Ranger being my favorites. Until tonight I didn't know there was any books past three in the Ranger series.

I liked the Doomsday Warrior first few books, but about 1/2 way through the series it just seemed to turn into a grudge match between the hero (ted rockson??) and the KGB agent. Got really weird and I lost interest and moved on.

Also liked how both series featured Colorado and the Denver area.

Bonus - we share the last name.