Monday, June 1, 2015

The Last Ranger #2: The Savage Stronghold

The Last Ranger #2: The Savage Stronghold, by Craig Sargent
October, 1986  Popular Library

I had another fun time revisiting my nerdlinger youth, reading the second volume of the Last Ranger series. This one was just as entertaining as the first, and I can see again why this series so resonated with my 11-year-old self: it’s awesome! Jan Stacy once again turns in a goofy but violent tale about a dude, his dog, his Harley, and the post-nuke world in which they live.

Picking up two weeks after that first volume, Stone and his pit bull, who we learn here he’s named Excalibur, are heading deeper into Colorado; Stone’s witless sister April was captured by the biker maniacs the Guardians of Hell in Denver at the climax of that first installment, and Stone’s hellbent to save her. The biggest boon to the series is the introduction of Excalibur; Stacy turns it into a buddy novel, with lots of banter between Stone and the dog. Not that the “bullterrier” can talk, of course, but his nonverbal responses and reactions to Stone throughout the novel actually made me laugh.

Stone by the way was consistently depicted on the covers as wearing sleeveless fatigues and goggles (I disagree with Zwolf – I think the goggles look cool!), but in the text we learn that he goes for more “realistic” post-nuke garb: jeans, a few sweaters, and a leather jacket. He also wears a motorcycle helmet with visor, so there go the goggles. Also I don’t believe the cover artist ever properly captured Stone’s Harley, which not only is an Electroglide 1200 but more importantly has a .50-caliber machine gun built onto its frame, the barrel jutting out from above the headlight.

The first novel spent most of its time world-building; The Savage Stronghold gets right to the good stuff with Stone blowing away a group of mutants who have erected a barrier outside some road near Pueblo, Colorado. They turn out to be cannibals too, with Stone coming across the grisly remains of one of their feasts. He blows away the half-eaten corpses, thinking them an affront to god – that is, whatever god allowed Earth to become such a hellhole. Running throughout the novel is a nicely-done subtext of Stone’s growing bitterness toward this world, and the life that was denied him by the nuclear holocaust.

Another interesting element Stacy builds in The Savage Stronghold is how 23-year-old Martin Stone slowly begins to think of himself in the role of a savior or at least a hero of the post-nuke world. The series shares the blackly humorous cynicism of David Alexander’s Phoenix series, but The Last Ranger is even more acidic, with even the narrative tone dripping with despair (I lost count of the number of times “fucking” was used as an adjective – ie, “Stone wondered how long until the whole fucking world collapsed,” and etc). Stone begins to feel that he is the only person on the planet who still cares, and as the narrative proceeds he begins to help those unfortunates he meets.

The first such person is an emaciated man crucified on a wooden cross outside of Pueblo. (Stone’s shocked reaction to the sight is another example of Stacy’s subtle dark humor: “Jesus Christ!”) After Stone cuts him down the man proceeds to explain that he was put up there by the Brothers of the Same, who rule Pueblo. Then a few of the Brothers show up: hulking, gray-robed sadists whose faces are hidden by cowls. They employ these cattle prod sort of things that shoot out electric lashes; one of them fries the poor guy Stone just saved, and Stone makes quick but gory work of them. Stacy retains the ultra-gore of the Doomsday Warrior series; anytime someone dies, we get thorough detail of brains gushing, eyeballs exploding, etc.

Stone eventually learns that The Brothers of the Same preach the equality of sameness. If you are in any way different from their definition of “sameness” (as defined in their massive handbook) then you are punished. Stacy has a lot of fun spoofing organized religion, though it is a little hard to understand how or why the Brothers work with the Guaridans of Hell, whom they co-rule Pueblo with; you’d think each would naturally hate the other. Stone’s plan is to pose as a trapper, here in Pueblo to trade animal hides, and he quickly makes a sale with Straight Razor, aka Straight, the pot-bellied Guardian boss with a penchant for knife fighting – and also the man who stole away with Stone’s sister.

For vague reasons Straight has decided to marry April, and he’ll do so in a Brothers-hosted ceremony on Sunday, two days away. Also Straight’s into dog fights, and insists that Stone bring his mutt to that night’s fight. Much deliberation on Stone’s part, as he feels terrible that he’s about to toss the trusting pit bull to the dogs, literally, but it all turns out moot – Excalibur, unsurprisingly, is a born fighter, and makes quick and gory work of Straight’s previously-undefeated champion. But when Stone demands April as his reward, he’s outed by the surprise appearance of Poet, that armless and legless dwarf who made Stone’s life hell back in Denver.

Shot up and bleeding to death, Stone manages to escape, but he’s forced to leave Excalibur behind. In true Doomsday Warrior fashion Stone manages to get saved by a group of rebels who live in an abandoned gold mine outside of town. And sure enough there’s also a smokin’-hot chick there (Melissa) who takes an immediate interest in Stone, and vice versa; cue a super-explicit sex scene that goes on for a few pages as Melissa crawls in bed with the convalescing Stone. Unlike Doomsday Warrior it doesn’t get purple-prosed at all, and in fact is probably more explicit than what you’d read in most any other men’s adventure novel of the ‘80s (excluding only the Depth Force series).

“If I can fuck I can fight,” claims a still-injured Stone, and thus armed with an Uzi and some old dynamite he limps back into Pueblo on Sunday morning to save his sister. Instead he’s promptly caught by the Brothers and taken to their Temple of Pain, where he manages to free himself after some sadistic stuff. Stacy gets even more sadistic with a bizarro part where Stone discovers a section where the Brothers keep their human experiments, a scene capped off where Stone finds one of them still living, even though his brain has been removed and is sitting in a tank of water (Stone blows it apart in another of the novel’s hilariously gruesome moments).

The finale is mostly made up of Stone blasting the church of the Brothers, right in the middle of April’s wedding ceremony. Speaking of April she continues to be such a cipher – Stacy doesn’t even bother describing her this time – that the reader has a hard time understanding why Stone’s in such a tither over saving her. Also I believe she speaks for the first time in the series here – “Martin, I thought you were dead!” – before she’s pulled away and Stone gets in a savage knife fight with Straight. After this it’s a lot of dynamite tossing and then Stone and Excalibur standing in the rubble and taking out hordes of Brothers – that is, with a little last-second help from the Pueblo freedom force.

By novel’s end April is still missing; Stone is informed by one of the surviving Guardians that Poet took her off to his “central headquarters” in Utah. Even Stone is uncertain over this, as he’d thought Poet was nothing more than a court jester. But apparently he’s some post-nuke bigwig, and more importantly now he’s got April. So now Stone must continue on toward Utah, but Melissa insists that he stay for the night, so she can bathe him and feed him – “And then we can just fuck and fuck all night.” Now that’s a post-nuke babe you stick around for, but Stone’s damn determined to save his sister.

In my reviews of the early Doomsday Warrior books I wondered endlessly who was the “better” author: Jan Stacy or Ryder Syvertsen. Reading The Savage Stronghold, I see now that all of that was moot: the two authors have such similar writing styles that I wondered if Syvertsen had written this book, too. Seriously, the novel is filled with run-on sentences and the same sort of bombastic yet goofy tone which is prevalent in the sole-authored Syvertsen books.

That being said, The Savage Stronghold was still a lot of fun, even if it wasn’t filled with action – though as stated, when the action did go down it was incredibly graphic (both in the violence and the sex departments). What more could you ask for?

1 comment:

Zwolf said...

I pretend the goggles are covering an extra pair of mutated eyes he has higher on his forehead... (okay, not really, but now that I thought of it I can't stop picturing it).

I keep meaning to dig these back out and start reading 'em again. They're probably the best of the post-apocalypse series, kind of like Kamandi without the animal-people. Yep, these are definitely due for a re-visiting.