In the spirit of self-recrimination, I feel like I'm obliged to begin this review by pointing out that it's been slightly less than three and a half years -- YEARS! -- since I last blogged about a Tabitha King novel. (Here's the evidence, your Honor.)
I wish I had a better excuse. What I do have is this: a combination of too many ideas, too little time, and WAY too little self-discipline in the area of time-management.
Tabitha King need not feel like a sole slightee, though: I've similarly failed to be productive at blogging about the specific works of Peter Straub (June 2014) and Robert McCammon (May 2014), both of whom I had hoped to work on steadily. And I think there might have been one other one, too. Who am I trying to think of...?
Oh, yeah. Stephen King. THAT guy. I haven't done one of the in-depth analyses of his novels that I enjoy doing since I covered Needful Things in October 2014. Three years and some change! Okay, sure, I did take a lengthy look at Revival in December '16 / January '17. So it hasn't been AS long as it feels.
You don't care about any of this. And if you do, you shouldn't; I thank you, but trust me, you've got better things to care about than this.
I myself do care, though. I worry about this stuff, Bevvie; I worry a lot. And for my own purposes, I'd like to talk a bit about that. Since you are here only for the Tabitha King review, I'll make it simple for you to get to it: just scroll down to the photo of the book cover, and read from there.
If you're still here, know that I am in full self-indulgence mode for a few paragraphs and tread accordingly.
I started my blog in January 2011, and I did it for a simple reason: I needed to do something. I'd long entertained the vague goal of writing some sort of long-form analysis of Stephen King's work. This goal went all the way back to a pre-9/11 era, and at one point I had the ambition to put it to use in a graduate-school way. That was a long time ago, now; and even though it seems occasionally to still be a fresh and possible ambition, in fact, it's anything but. It's been anything but for at least a decade now, and probably longer.
And that's okay! Find me a living adult human and I'll show you someone who hasn't done everything they wanted to do. No, I'm not worried about that much. And my urge to write about Stephen King's books is a separate thing, which never went away. By January 2011, its only existence was in my mind, but it DID exist there; and when I was sitting in my apartment one night, pondering the growing feeling that I needed something other than what I had, this idea -- my "Stephen King idea" -- floated to the top of my mind.
Nothing uncommon about that; it often did so. But on this particular night, it evolved, and a new thought presented itself: you could start a blog, it said. I'd always thought of my "Stephen King idea" as plans to write a book (or a series of books); I'm old-school in many ways, and that's what old-school fellows think when they think about writing: books. But even then, I was living in a new-school world, and blogs made it very simple and (potentially) inexpensive for any dolt in the world to put their thoughts out there in a formal manner.
So why not do that?
No reason not to, said my brain, and so the next thing you knew, I'd created a blog -- Ramblings Of A Honk Mahfah, it was called then -- and had begun writing about Stephen King. The plan was to ... uh ... the plan to was to find a plan, eventually. At first, I didn't know if I'd try to be a news aggregator or a critic or a commentator or what. But I knew I wanted to write about the books and stories and movies.
At that point in time, I was already well into a chronological reread of all of King's works. I don't remember precisely when I'd begun that reread project, but I'd made it up to The Drawing of the Three, which I'd just finished. So this presented a dilemma of sorts: did I want to start over from the beginning (Carrie) and write about everything in order? Or did I want to simply pick up writing about the next book (Misery) and go from there?
I decided on the latter approach, and I began fucking up almost immediately. I read the novel, took a bunch of notes on it, and then planned to write it all up and present it as "A Week of Misery." This was going to be a five-part, Monday-Friday series. I got the Monday post out on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2011, and then ... didn't finish the second part until Wednesday. Part Three landed on Thursday, but then the fourth part did not appear until the next Monday.
So right off the bat, I learned that my ability to keep to a schedule was perhaps not the best; but I also learned that writing of the type I was interested in doing was resistant to being scheduled, and that I might be best-served to not try. This didn't prevent me from trying again, on multiple occasions; and once in a while, I actually managed to get the job done.
From there, my goal was to simply continue my chronological reread, and blog about the books (and any significant adaptations of them) as I went. Here's what I've gotten done since then:
The Tommyknockers (April 2011)
The Dark Half (August 2011)
Four Past Midnight (December 2013 - January 2014)
Needful Things (October-December 2014)
I also reread the revised/uncut version of The Stand, and while I did not write about the novel itself, I did write extensive analyses of both the miniseries and the Marvel Comics adaptation. Oh, and I reread The Waste Lands, but opted not to blog about it because it made little sense to me to do so without first blogging about The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three.
Plus, I covered many of the books King has released during the time my blog has existed: 11/22/63, Joyland, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Doctor Sleep, Revival, etc. I wrote what might be one of the more comprehensive pieces ever written about Golden Years, too; not a novel, but a major original work (partially) by King, so that kinda counts.
Yes, I've done lots of pieces in those nearly-seven years that I'm proud of.
But there's no getting around it: I've made shockingly little progress on my reread project. If you count both The Stand and The Waste Lands, that's six books in seven years. We're talking about a guy who turned 38 the year he began his blog, which is about an author who has (depending on what you count and how you count them) in excess of 70 books on his bibliography.
Do the math on that.
It's not pretty.
So with that in mind, the time has come to tighten the fuck up around here. There are still side-projects I'm going to work at -- like the Tabitha King project, and the Peter Straub project -- and I'm sure others will pop up on occasion, but the goal is simple: no more fucking around.
The Guided Tour Of The Kingdom project I completed late last year was designed to sort of throw down a gauntlet for myself. "THIS," I was saying to myself, "is what you've got to do, asshole. Get the fuck to it!"
Because time is a finite resource, isn't it? Yes, it certainly is. So I find myself thinking more and more frequently, can you really afford to spend your time doing _________ when you could be working on your projects? Sometimes, that's a yes. There's never going to be a time when I'm not going to watch a new Star Wars movie, probably twice; I'm going to be pickier with other movies, though. This is a curious feeling for a man who works at a movie theatre; this is a curious feeling for a man who has not missed an Oscars telecast since at least 1990. But this year, do I really need to see The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread and Molly's Game and Hostiles and the Disaster Artist and whatever else when every hour I spend doing so is an hour I'm not working on my project?
I might see a few of them; I will not see all of them.
As much as I'd like to watch the new seasons of some of the television series I'm interested in following, when I weigh the thirteen hours it would take to watch the third season of __________ against the amount of work I could make on my project during the same amount of time, how often can I honestly say that watching television is worth it? And let's not even talk about new series. I'm sure that show you want me to watch is awesome; unless I feel like I can't live without it, it ain't happening. I'm sure that The Deuce is great; I'm never going to find out. Mindhunter sounds like it'd be right up my alley; so does Dark. Fuck 'em both; it ain't happening.
Time to be realistic about all of this stuff, folks.
Good news is, we're only about halfway done with January, and I've already read three books, which is more than I read during the entire spring of 2017. None of them count toward my Stephen King project, per se (i.e., none of the three were by King), but that's okay; that's by design. I am working my way up to it, and I'm actually ahead of the schedule I've made for myself ... so far.
Plans can always go awry, though. For example, I hadn't planned to write any of this. I planned to merely launch into a relatively brief review of The Trap. But sometimes, the fingers start to typing, and the soul dictates what keys they hit moreso than the brain does.
That's okay; got to be realistic about that, too.
And now, with no further ado:
The Trap was published in 1985, and was King's third novel. Her first, Small World, was a science-fiction novel; her second, Caretakers, was a generations-spanning drama set in the small fictional Maine town of Nodd's Ridge. (Nodd's Ridge will be the setting for most of King's novels, including The Trap.)
I'm not a huge fan of Small World, which has some interesting situations and characters but feels a bit like a chocolate and tilapia sandwich in that the whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts. It feels to me like King was trying too hard in her debut, but it also feels as if she figured out whatever she needed to figure out by the time Caretakers rolled around. Her second novel is a much more assured piece of work in every way.
The Trap almost feels as if it could have been an intermediate step between the two. I won't further bury the lede: I don't think this is as good a novel as Caretakers is. But so what? I love Caretakers, so taking a step down from that one -- even a large one (which is this is not) -- could still put you on a plane where you're reading a good novel. And if you're reading The Trap, you're reading a good novel.
However, I don't think The Trap succeeds in all of its ambitions, and in that way it is arguably closer to Small World than to Caretakers.
The story goes something like this (and yes, there are apt to be spoilers, because I don't think I can talk about this novel with giving a few):
The Russells are a four-person family from out of town who live in Nodd's Ridge during the summer. Olivia, the mother, is an artist who runs a pottery business; Pat, the father, is a screenwriter and small-time actor who is away on business quite a bit; Sarah and Travis, the children, are big fans, respectively, of Bruce Springsteen and G.I. Joe.
Liv and Pat's marriage is not going all that well in some respects. His frequent absences are a strain, especially since he's developed a bit of a cocaine habit thanks to his Hollywood buddies. Plus Liv is dealing with the constant pain of a toothache; she's had the tooth yanked out, finally, but has unresolved phantom pain that sometimes leaves her literally sitting and staring at a clock waiting for the time to come when she can take more medicine to dull the pain. Lest that make Liv sound like a drug addict, she's not; if anything, she leans closer to being a teetotaler, and takes only what medicine she feels she has to take.
Pat is in the finishing stages on Firefight, a mediocre Vietnam-themed action film that he wrote. As the novel opens, he's just back in Nodd's Ridge after having been absent most of the summer, filming in Louisiana. He's struggling to make his various familial relationships work, and once they all go back to their non-summer home -- and I can't remember where that is (sorry!) -- it only gets worse. Pat ill-advisedly puts money down on a large house in Los Angeles, planning to move his family there to make for less traveling for himself. Thing is, Liv is running a business; she's not interested in moving, and she's definitely not interested in moving without being consulted first.
This leads to a familial fracture in which Liv and Travis (who is only four) leave and go to their Nodd's Ridge home during the worst part of winter. That's where they spend basically the last half of the novel, and much of that span of pages concerns Liv and Travis suffering mightily during a home invasion mounted upon the Russell home by a trio of low-life goons who have been terrorizing the summer-people's houses and property during the "off season."
If that sounds like the story turned on a dime, well ... you're not entirely wrong. But King does establish the potential for this sort of turn in the opening chapter, which involves Liv going on a berry-picking walk and encountering the trio of goons. They've caught a cat in an animal trap, and stomp it to death in front of her. Also, one of them shows Liv his dick. (Not for the last time, either, more on which in a bit.) It's a memorably tense opening scene. King is not writing a horror novel like those her husband writes, but in this opening, her ability to convey menace is more or less on par with Stephen's: a woman without a weapon walking through a field, encountering three grown men of questionable intention in a setting where nobody knows any of them are present.
She saw the blur of movement out of the corner of her eye but could not avoid the man who grabbed her wrist. His foot was suddenly behind her heel, his hand around her wrist, as hard as a manacle. He jerked her backward. She lost her balance and flipped onto her back onto the rock-knobby ground, the breath knocked out of her. The pail flew up out of her grasp, raining berries as it arced over them and hit the ground with a thunk. What remained of her patient work spilled onto the mossy ground around it. For a moment she was stunned and disoriented. Gasping for breath, she managed to refocus her vision; above her was a ragged canopy of trees under the white hot sky, and the man, like the trunk of a tree, who had decked her, staring down at her. His eyes were the color of spit. The short cut of his blond hair emphasized the squareness of his jaw. He showed a quantity of carnivorously healthy white teeth. His lips were thin and the upper one was flawed just off the center as if someone had taken a stitch there. He stepped over her, one foot on either side of her knees, and crossed his arms.
From here, anything can happen. I'm spoiling you when I say that essentially nothing does, except for a violent cat-killing (which is actually a mercy killing, as the cat in question has been inadvertently trapped and is dying a slow, painful death already) and the taunting exposure of a penis to someone who doesn't have any interest in seeing it. But Liv is not assaulted any farther than that; she's not raped, or strangled, or otherwise harmed.
But she could have been. Nothing was stopping it from happening except the choice of the three men to not do so. That's the menace of this opening scene (designated "Prologue" instead of "Chapter 1" so as, perhaps, to give it a bit more weight). It hangs over the first half of the novel like the Sword of Damocles, and when the three goons point their snowmobiles toward Liv's house later in the novel (during a time in which it is just her and her small son living there), there's little doubt as to where the narrative will be going.
From there, I suspect, your feelings about the novel will form. If you feel what happens from here is a bit too much, then your opinion of the novel is apt to be a negative one; if you feel it's earned its violence, your opinion is apt to be positive.
Mine is positive. I think it's pretty clear that this is what the novel is building toward, and while I guess it might be possible to accuse King of being exploitative and salacious, I don't think that was what was on her mind at all.
The rape itself is brutal; not cartoonishly so, however, which could have been a danger. If anything, the actual penetration is less unpleasant than much of the activity that lies on either side of it: Liv has a bunch of teeth knocked out or broken first, and this seems worse to me than the rape does. Hopefully nobody thinks I'm being insensitive when I say that; and anyways, I think part of the reason I feel that way about it is that King is directing me to that conclusion.
There's more to it than that, of course. King goes into admirably excruciating detail during the scenes in which Liv is being raped. I don't feel she ever goes overboard, but your mileage may vary. For me, all of these scenes are very strong; not pleasant, but very well-executed and (pardon the pun [you know what I mean if you've read it]) gripping and memorable and moving.
Other aspects of the novel work less well for me. For example, there are occasional chapters that begin with rough-cut summaries of scenes from Firefight, Pat's action movie. The idea, I think, is that these are excerpts from the screenplay; or, if not, that they are summaries of the on-screen action. If the former, then King has seemingly never read a screenplay, and does not know that they are not written in prose; if the latter, then I'm not sure why she didn't take steps to clarify things a bit better. Either way, I guess it doesn't matter that much; we get that these sections are summarizing the movie, and that's really all we need to know.
There's too much of it. The novel only runs 312 pages, and about 35 of them are devoted to the "rough cut" of Firefight. These sections aren't bad, per se; it's kind of fun to read King's version of a b-grade eighties action movie. And I'm sure that Firefight is intended to be a sort of commentary on the male perspective about the sort of things Liv eventually endures. The action in Firefight is seemingly motivated by a similar thing that happens to a woman in Vietnam at the hands of a troop of American soldiers; one of them does not take part in it, and years later decides to take the rest of them out. (I think that's what is going on; my reading comprehension isn't at its best this week.) You might be tempted to think Pat wrote this as a response to what happened to Liv, but no, he wrote it before; so I'm not entirely sure what King intends Firefight to convey as a counterpoint to the "real" violence Liv herself will suffer. I feel certain King has intentions of that nature; I just haven't figured out what they are.
I think there might also be some comparison of Americans in Vietnam to out-of-towner summer people vacationing in small Maine towns. Very different scenarios, but both carry more than a whiff of "you don't belong here" accusations. I suspect there might be an even larger point than that being hinted at; but without a second reading and some note-taking, I don't think I'm going to be able to find it.
I'd also point out that King has a few characters who don't get the attention they ought to get. Or maybe that's not true, since giving them more attention would mean deviating further from the plot than seems like a good idea. Liv's father, Doe, for example: he seems like a fascinating character, but he has only a tiny amount of time in the narrative. Similarly, Arden Nyeswander, the father of the three goons, seems to be less present than he could have been; although, granted, he might feature in later Nodd's Ridge books, for all I know. I guess what I'm saying is that King drops an impressive cast of characters on us, and doesn't fully deliver on giving us enough time with all of them. Now that I think about what I'm saying, this can't really be called a demerit on the novel; and yet, it kind of feels as if it might be one.
|author photo from the back cover|
Ultimately, what I'd say about The Trap is that while it didn't work for me as well as Caretakers did, it's nevertheless a strong piece of work. A flawed one, maybe; although its flaws might prove to be virtues on a reread, for all I know. (I have a tickle in the back of my mind saying that might well be the case.) But strong, impactful stuff regardless of the "flaws."
In case you're wondering, that's a recommendation.
Now, a few other things I wanted to mention:
- I'm resistant to comparing Tabitha's work to Stephen's, particularly while I'm blogging about it. She's her own author, and deserves to be considered that way. She'd deserve it even if her work sucked, which it assuredly does not; as good as it is, it'd be a downright failing to treat it any other way. Still, comparisons are inevitable, and King seems to invite them on a few occasions. For example, consider the following bit from page 138, which involves Liv visiting Walter, the caretaker of her and her husband's summer home:
- "The painted table was invisible under a mountain range of books and papers and magazines: his bills and receipts; canceled checks; tax forms and records; letters from the granddaughter who lived in Alaska; yellowing snapshots, like dry leaves scattered among the papers, of great-grandchildren he had never seen in the flesh; a year or more's accumulation of Field and Stream and Yankee; and paperback westerns, often coverless, bought for a dime from bins in Dewey Linscott's junkstore in Greenspark. His favorites were by J.C. Devereaux, who was really a woman named Bobbie Anderson who lived only a hundred miles mortheast in Haven, a wide place in the road on the way to Derry and Bangor, a fact that amused the hell out of Walter when Liv told him." -- Bobbie Anderson, of course, later ends up being one of the major characters in Stephen King's novel The Tommyknockers, which would not be published until 1987! He was already writing it by this time, of course, and Tabitha must surely have read whatever there was of it.
- Elsewhere (for example, page 249) there are references to Shawshank Prison, which the trio of villains are afraid to be sent to. There is also an instance of the phrase "Kill them all and let God sort them out" appearing on a tee-shirt; I always associate this with the movie version of Needful Things, where it is said by Leland Gaunt. It might also be in the novel, though I think not; and I had not suspected until encountering it here that it had real-world origins.
- Another dubious connection to Stephen's work: in Firefight, there is a black man named Ratcliffe whom other people refer to as "Ratty." Can't fail but to think the Rat Man in The Stand when I hear that; I don't think the two characters are connected in any way, but my mind made the connection nevertheless.
- Similarly, one of the villains speaks Liv's name in the following manner: "O-liv-i-a," one syllable at a time, mockingly. I could not help but think of the way Junior Rennie says Dale Barbara's nickname in Under the Dome: "Baaaaaarbie," slow, mockingly. No way on Earth this is a coincidence; I'm not saying Stephen King had The Trap in mind when he did that (though I wouldn't be surprised if he did), but it feels like at the very least, Tabitha and Stephen both heard somebody say a name in this manner at some point and filed it away for later use. Tabitha beat Steve to it, and also put it to better use.
- I mentioned earlier that Sarah, Liv and Pat's daughter, is a big Bruce Springsteen fan. This is a prominent enough element of the novel that (A) the name Roy Bittan is actually invoked at one point, (B) it is mentioned that Pat has grown so tired of hearing "Born to Run" that he has invented his own filthy parody version (no lyrics of which are given, sadly), and (C) the Russells even own "Born to Add," the Sesame Street parody by "Bruce Stringbean." Videos of that here and here.
- Travis is a huge G.I. Joe fan, and while it's non-kosher to impose autobiographical readings on fiction, it's worth pointing out that Owen King was so avid a fan of the Joes that he had a character named after him in 1987.
- The novel is a deadly-serious piece of work, but there is one scene involving a visit to a mall Santa Claus that made me laugh loudly for about thirty seconds.
Oh...! And I forgot to mention Helen Alden, who is maybe my favorite character in the novel. She's an elderly lesbian who walks with a cane and dispenses trenchant advice. She helps Liv change a flat tire at one point, and has kind of reached the point in life where her give-a-shit has just about run out. She's pretty great, and she features in the novel's climax in major way. You'll see that coming -- there's a scene in her house where she may as well be telling Liv, "And over here I have Chekov's gun..." It's so obvious a foreshadowing that ... well, it's obvious that King intended it to be obvious. So its obviousness isn't so much an issue for me. The question is, do I buy what happens as a result.
You know what? Yeah; yeah, I think I do. Again, your mileage may vary.
|For the record, no, that's not a hint. I just didn't know where else to put this image without breaking up my lovely bulletpoints above.|
Well, folks, there you have it: a shitload of self-indulgence followed by a review of The Trap. For my next trick, I'll be reviewing Peter Straub's novel Koko.
But I've got to read it first, so see you then!