Welcome to We Read Dead People, where authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & Strange, The Smaller Evil) and Daniel Kraus (The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Rotters) read a novel from the glory days of direct-to-paperback horror—the magnificent 1980s—and determine whether it was worth the suggested retail price.
What’s scarier than a grumpy five-year-old with a tricycle and an uncontrollable yen for murder? Well, lots of things. In Russell Rhodes’ Tricycle (Pocket, 1983), recently blinded Christopher Hennick accepts a teaching position at Talbot Academy. Problem #1: His students mock his blindness. Problem #2: He’s attracted to Karen, wife of Arthur, the head of the English department. Problem #3. Arthur and Karen’s kid, Simon, seems to be pedaling all over campus, burning and stabbing and whatnot.
SK: My six-word summary of Tricycle: Small Child on Tricycle, Squeaky Horror.
DK: Tiny Tot on Trike Troubles Talbot.
SK: Oh wow.
DK: This is why I get paid the big bucks. And here’s my controversial opening statement: Tricycle was a lot less violent than I expected! Like, until the final scene, there’s maybe three deaths, none of them especially gory.
SK: Some of it was delightfully sordid and strange, though.
DK: I wonder if that’s going to be a theme: were all these books less garish than we think they were?
SK: Possibly! I think this was going for more psychological terror, which is unfortunately where it didn’t work at all.
DK: I will say Christopher and Karen were far more complicated than I would’ve expected from a book like this.
SK: I did come to appreciate Karen, but the opening sex scene in the barn with the teenage student was offputting.
What kind of kid has a housecoat? He owns dangerous snakes—at age 5? Had Rhodes ever met a child?
DK: Yeah, but it’s part of why she ends up being interesting, right? Rhodes introduces her as a sleazy, bored, possibly Nazi femme fatale out to seduce our goodhearted American man. . . but then he turns her into a good guy! I can’t say I saw that coming.
SK: Right, the Nazi connection. I thought we were going toward some Boys from Brazil thing for a while there. Wait, was Christopher really goodhearted, though? He was a mess.
DK: A total jerk at first! I loved that. So full of himself.
SK: And super reactive and emotional, which is very unhero-like. Can we talk about my favorite scene? The snakes??? So Christopher, who is terrified of snakes, has a classroom that just happens to be connected by a door to the school’s rattlesnake farm. And when he realizes all of the snakes have “accidentally” been let out and have slithered into his classroom, he melts into a big puddle of sobbing terror.
DK: “Rattlesnake farm.”
SK: Then he’s found by the janitor who DOES NOT HELP HIM, but instead tells the Headmaster who makes the students come and collect their rattlesnakes.
DK: Right: send the kids in! It is, though, one of the few scenes that takes advantage of Christopher’s blindness. There’s a huge missed opportunity here. You’ve got a blind protag, and yet you choose to employ this ungainly, floating POV that jumps between characters sometimes in the same paragraph? You can’t build up tension regarding what he can’t see—and then blatantly say what he can’t see in the very next line!
SK: There was no buildup of tension. And the motif of the squeaking tricycle happens in situations when only the reader would know about it.
DK: Speaking of squeaky tricycles: Rhodes wants us to think, through 95% of the book, that there’s this tyke trucking all over campus on his trike. Boy, are there ever logical problems with this. Nothing about Simon adds up. He has a housecoat? What kind of kid has a housecoat? He owns dangerous snakes—at age 5? Had Rhodes ever met a child?
It was also interesting that there was never any issue with Karen having (lots of) sex with underage boys.
SK: And he’s triking around in the dead of winter!
DK: Inside buildings! Up and down huge valleys! And while he’s triking all over creation and burning boys alive and stabbing dudes in the eyes, we, as educated readers, are saying, “This is ludicrous. Rhodes is a bad writer.” But then all that “bad writing” can be excused away by the twist! Did you see it coming? I totally did not.
SK: I did not see it coming.
DK: Here’s the spoiler: the killer is Simon’s dad, Arthur, carrying around a tape player with a tricycle sound, killing people who had sex with his wife. Why? Well, it has to do with incest. God, I love books about incest. If Stephen King was one of the spawners of the paperback horror boom, the other had to be V.C. Andrews. On the 1980s horror Incest-o-Meter, I’d give this a solid “High” rating.
Anyway, to sum up: Karen, as a teen, had sex with her domineering twin(!) brother Kurt, and now is only attracted to Kurt lookalikes, which her husband, pretending to be his son, then murders. Yes?
SK: And Simon is really Kurt’s child.
DK: Oh, Jesus. That too.
SK: It was also interesting that there was never any issue with Karen having (lots of) sex with underage boys. It’s only that she was cheating on her husband that was an issue.
DK: Rhodes seems totally cool with her having sex with teens.
SK: There was also all that sexual tension between Christopher and his student, Lucas.
DK: Right! Lucas makes a pass, doesn’t he?
SK: It seemed that way. Then he gets his face burned off.
DK: And Karen gets drowned. Aberrant sexuality gets you offed. Still, Rhodes never demonizes Karen or Lucas. I appreciate that.
SK: True, ridiculous as her backstory was, Karen is meant to be sympathetic, and yes, that’s a great reversal. The thing I could’ve done without are the multiple scenes of the Headmaster worrying about the spring thaw.
DK: I, for one, was worried about the lilacs.
Lastly, I’ll forever credit Rhodes for supplying me with what I hope will be my last words on Earth. They are Arthur’s last words: “Satan’s whore!”
SK: Okay, time for final judgment: Was Tricycle worth the $2.95 suggested retail price? For me, absolutely. It had some original twists, flawed, interesting characters, and lurid and over-the-top details that would’ve made V.C. Andrews proud. Squeak, squeak, squeak.
DK: Totally worth $2.95. I’m a sucker for killer kids (even if Simon didn’t end up being a killer kid), a sucker for tawdry incest tales (don’t judge), and pretty impressed at how Rhodes took an oversexed semi-Nazi and made me sad when she died. Buy it!
SK: That was fun. Well, here’s hoping for more incest discussions!
DK: Satan’s whore!!!