The task was simple, but the means of capture were not. Traps are common enough among mice and men, but they require careful planning to deliver their prey. Sometimes a trap is self-inflicted, like the burdens of a terrible relationship. Other times, a trap can be the insidious workings of darker intentions.
Joseph Devon wandered the wastelands with “The Burnt Passage.”
Lu Whitley hit closer to home with “Monster Trap.”
Hi, all. Tom Mays here, he of the 0.500 TWA batting average, the pulpy SF&F book and stories, and the absolutely atrocious fake interview accent. I was very honored to be asked by the staff to weigh in on the first round of this EPIC tournament, and before reading the stories, I figured this judging thing is gonna be a breeze!
Yeah, no. No, it’s not. Because, here I am, faced by two really well done, engaging stories by two of my favorite writers on the Arena . . . and I have to pick only one and justify that choice. Joseph Devon — he’s one of the originals here and a truly inventive pro author with a unique voice (honestly, check out Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions — you won’t be disappointed). Then you have Lu Whitley, who’s entry last time with “Words on the Wind” absolutely devastated me with its beauty and craftsmanship. I happily nominated it for a Hugo for Best Short Story. In a just world, more people would have known about it and been equally enraptured. But, I gotta pick just one today.
First up is Joseph’s “The Burnt Passage“. Wow. This story is going to be reprinted in the dictionary next to the word evocative. There’s not a wasted word here, and every one is used to paint a picture. I could feel Leonard’s thirst. I had a perfect image of the desert scene through which he stumbled. Back in the crescent, I quickly got myself up to speed on the Colonel, his idiot son, the situation, and the background, all without the same clunky expository dumps I often use. I was pleasantly surprised to get a Western, and I enjoyed the slow, twisty reveal of the trap’s true nature — an excellent use of this week’s prompt. The line-level writing is pro-quality, the dialog and characterization is spot-on, and the plot is a neatly constructed artifice that does not reveal its true shape until the last few paragraphs.
As for criticisms, mine are few and only exist because I’m forced to provide them. The story could have used a better hook early on. I get that Leonard is stumbling about, but I don’t know why or where until much, much later. The imagery and description draw you in, but a few hints as to the situation placed earlier on — and perhaps some judicious editing of the sheer volume of description — might have eliminated this criticism. And, honestly, it took me a while to decide this was a terrestrial, historical setting Western and not some desert fantasy or a story depicted on an arid, low-tech colony world (in fact, I’m still not 100% sure). As for the ending, I could have wished for Leonard to turn the tables on the Colonel, but the ending as written works perfectly well.
On to Lu’s “Monster Trap“. Oh, my, that certainly shifted abruptly. What begins as a fun, quickly moving tale of a quirky kid, a dedicated, but unfulfilled mom, and an absentee dad goes dark horror fast enough to give you whiplash — and I like that. Where Joseph wraps us in imagery and precise description, Lu paints a scene with emotion and mood, and she is a masterful artist. I had a clear picture of just what Casey was going through, of her relationship with her son and his father, of her problems with both. Despite all that, she is nothing if not a dedicated, indulgent mother who gives her quirky, possibly Asperger’s-afflicted child all the room and freedom he needs to express his flights of fancy. And then, when reality proves to be more horrifying than fanciful, Lu grabs us with well-crafted, punchy action and a finale that fits perfectly and terrifyingly with what went before. That poor woman. Thomas truly is his father’s son. It makes me wonder if the title has a double meaning: a trap for a monster, or a trap built by a monster.
On the critical side, I could say the same as I did for Joseph. If the situation had been revealed a touch sooner, setting the plot’s hook within the first 100 words or so, that could have improved the story. As it is, the true hook doesn’t dig in until after the convo with the father. I was interested in the going’s on because the writing is well done, but I didn’t know why I should stay interested through the end until well after those first few paragraphs (which is often all an editor is going to give you before he turns to the next in the slush pile). At the end, I was left with a lot of questions: what is the dad working on? Does the monster tie in to the father’s tale at all? What led to Thomas building the trap and how does one justify its functioning within the confines of the story’s world? And though Thomas is disconnected and often a bit henpecked by his mom, doesn’t he seem a little too blase about abandoning her to suffer with the monster in the trap? On the line-level writing / nitpicking front, this story could have used another pass through editing. There were several verb tense disagreements and incomplete sentences in the beginning that slowed my reading, and which weren’t obvious, appreciated stylistic choices.
This is a TOUGH choice. Nitpicks aside, both stories are very, very enjoyable and both answer the prompt in unique and surprising ways. When it comes down to it, though, the imagery of Joseph’s story and the twist of his plot beats out Lu’s characterization and the sudden, surprising horror of her ending. My vote is for “The Burnt Passage”.
That’s one for Joseph Devon, let’s see what Rich Alix has to say.
“Monster Trap” by Lu Whitley – I love the way this story starts out so normal. The way that Thomas and his Mom interact is perfect. The fact that Thomas is so engrossed in building something that she can’t understand but is the most important thing in the world to him is dead on. I have a six year old son and not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell me about some new gadget or invention he has built. That part really hit home for me.
The monster trap. I’ll admit, I saw where this was going pretty early but I am a sucker for the whole bringing the imaginary world into reality thing so it was good. The descriptions of what it was made from and Thomas as he built it were great and painted a vivid picture for me.
Then we get to the action. The building tension of Casey looking for Thomas is nicely relieved and then transitioned into the tension of the monster attack. Nice little literary bait and switch there.
Casey’s struggles against the monster were a bit chaotic and a little hard to follow, but that helped to put me in the scene.
The issue that I ultimately had with this story is the resolution. Thomas’ homemade, jury-rigged, collection of household goods actually trapped the monster and his mother. I expected a heartfelt, emotional scene then as Thomas tries to help and she says to leave her or where Thomas can’t free her and has to say goodbye. Instead, Thomas shows no sadness at all. It hit me in waves then that not only was he alright with sacrificing his mother to trap the monster, HE PLANNED IT THE WHOLE TIME!! The maze and trap was as much for his mother as it was for the monster. While I didn’t see that coming at all, and it was written well, Thomas at the end just didn’t sit well with me. It was so out of the blue. We never had indication that he or his father was disturbed at all, just focused on work. Still a good story, but not one I will be returning to, I’m sorry to say.
“The Burnt Passage” by Joseph Devon – We’ve seen westerns here before, even from Mr Devon, so the setting didn’t seem too out of place. It’s not the first place I think of when I think of traps but it will work.
I like how we jump right into the action with Leonard without knowing much about what is going on. I thought maybe he had been double crossed, or got stuck out on a long journey or maybe even survived an ambush. We have a couple paragraphs to just walk with him until we find out he had been sentenced to death. I think this helps to put the reader on his side before letting us know he was a “criminal”. If we knew he was on a death march from the beginning it would have colored our view of him.
Switch to the Colonel and the backdrop for the story starts to get filled in. Battling for the desperately needed water from a new dam the town leader is on edge. The idea of making a push to capture a horrible outlaw seems prudent and wise. I like the inclusion of “cannibalism” as a little clue that maybe things aren’t what they seem. (I know we’ve had cannibals in the arena before, but it’s an odd crime to be wanted for) When the Colonel smacks Katchum (what a name) we get another glimpse behind his facade.
The bait for the first trap also gives us a look at Leonard’s motivation. He comes back to town to make sure his niece is well after seeing the signal in the window. He has to know that there is trouble waiting for him in town or there would be no need for a signal but he risks it just to make sure she is safe. Odd behavior for a cannibal.
It is at the gallows scene that we really start to put things together. The townspeople aren’t buying everything that the colonel is saying about Leonard but have no way to defy him. Then the Burnt Passage comes up and it seems like a win for everyone but the colonel…or is it?
I enjoyed the climax of this story quite a bit. We find out that the Colonel leaves nothing to chance and executes the Burnt Passage travelers also. Then we get Katchum desperately trying to do right by his Dad and kill Leonard only to find out that he is caught in a trap too.
I loved the layers of traps of all types. The trap at the saloon, the trap between the cliffs and desert on the Burnt Passage and the trap of Katchum by his double crossing father. It is further testament to Leonard’s character that they both survive to go their separate ways. Katchum’s troubles are far from over, but Leonard’s conscience is still clean.
The stories this week were worthy examples of the work that comes out of the arena and an excellent start to the 2015 Tournament. While both stories were excellent had to give my vote to the one that I simply enjoyed more, “The Burnt Passage” by Joseph Devon.
Looks like Joseph Devon is the winner! He will advance to the semifinals of the first Writer’s Arena Tournament! Congratulations Joseph!
Before we go, let’s see if our audience agrees with the decision.
Oh, this will be a bit controversial. It looks like Lu Whitley has definitely won the popular vote this time around. Unfortunately for her, when the judges decide together, the voting is overruled. Do not be discouraged Lu! We’re so grateful to have had your story in our first tournament.
Joseph Devon is our first author to advance. Join us next week as Albert Berg takes on one of our judges, Donald Jacob Uitvlugt!