on March 5, 2013
It has been some time since the prolific Stephen Dobyns has favored us with a work of fiction. EATING NAKED, a short story compilation, released at the turn of the century (yes, that sounds strange to me as well), and since then he has confined himself to publishing several collections of poetry. THE BURN PALACE is reminiscent of some of his past work, but nonetheless stands well on its own, seeming at first blush to fit comfortably into this or that genre but ultimately becoming somewhat difficult to classify.
Brewster, Rhode Island, is the unsettling setting for the book; it is a small town whose main industry is summer tourism. Brewster otherwise lies dormant in the off-season, perhaps no more so than in late October, as Halloween approaches and the area all but goes into hibernation. Dobyns uses the opening chapter to introduce a flurry of characters and situations, all of whom eventually intertwine and interact with each other in one form or another.
Things kick off in dramatic fashion when an infant is kidnapped from a local hospital, and a snake is left in the unfortunate baby’s bassinet. Everything is important in these opening pages, from the circumstances under which the infant was snatched to the attitude of the townspeople, who ultimately appear to be more concerned with the presence of the snake than the absence of the baby. This state of affairs includes the mother of the child, who indicates that the child was the spawn of Satan. This, of course, gets the normally quiet town rocking and rolling.
Woody Potter, an extremely taciturn detective, is put in charge of the investigation. Potter, whose personality is such as to render him good at his job but unlucky in love, is faced with multiple problems, as Brewster quickly spirals out of control. When other people begin disappearing, and the local coyote population becomes uncharacteristically aggressive, a supernatural element indeed seems to be at work. There surely are elements of darkly comic relief throughout the book, but the narrative is as likely to induce a gasp as a chuckle at any given moment. The tale itself is not so much linear as circular --- think of the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder --- with many characters doing many different things, some good and some bad.
One of the more interesting characters is Carl Krause, who is a disaster in the making. All he needs is a prod or two in the wrong direction. Another is his stepson, Hercel McGarty, Jr. who directly and indirectly influences the events that comprise the heart of the book. It is Hercel Jr.’s pet snake that is found in the baby’s bassinet at the beginning of the story. Hercel Jr. himself is one of the more noble figures of the tale, special in ways that can go one way or the other. As his stepfather deteriorates mentally, Hercel Jr. will be called upon to stand up and be counted in ways that he could never anticipate. Before the tale ends, he and the town of Brewster will be forever changed.
THE BURN PALACE revisits, albeit in a somewhat different manner, some of the themes that Dobyns examined in 1997’s THE CHURCH OF DEAD GIRLS, specifically with respect to the manner in which a small town veneer can be quickly stripped when trouble comes calling. Those who fondly recall the “Twilight Zone” episode titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” will find much to love here as well, as the center of Brewster --- its citizens and their interlocking relationships --- fails to hold in the face of adversity.
Part crime novel, part horror story, and part character study, THE BURN PALACE is worth savoring slowly and re-reading.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
on December 14, 2013
I really wanted to like this book, but I've realized that the only book of Dobyns' that I've really liked is THE CHURCH OF DEAD GIRLS. Everything else I've read has been disappointing, and BOY IN THE WATER was downright boring.
THE BURN PALACE starts out promisingly as spooky things start happening in a sleepy Rhode Island town. A baby is kidnapped; a local investigator is killed. Particularly aggressive coyotes begin wandering around town, and a ten-year old boy, Hercel McGarty, realizes he has some minor telekinetic abilities.
If it sounds like a Stephen King set-up, it is, from the New England setting through the kid with psychic powers, through covens and Satanism.
What kept me going for the first couple of hundred pages was the portrait of small-town life and the question of whether the events are supernatural or natural with rational explanations. There's a new-age center in the middle of downtown, and the characters there are consistently the most interesting. There's also a moderate exploration of Wicca and Satanism, which had the potential to be so much more interesting than it turned out to be.
Dobyns started to lose me by the second half, when the book starts to go on and on without moving anything forward. That's when the suspense starts to peter out, and when the reading experience goes from "rather leisurely, but enough to keep me interested" to "oh God, please get on with it!"
Part of the problem, for me at least, was how Dobyns seems to cobble together so many things that have been done before. For example, for the first hundred pages of the book, we keep hearing (explicitly) how the kidnapped baby might be Satan's baby: the characters refer time and time again to Rosemary's Baby. Do you mean to tell me that this novelist was unable to come up with his own plot, so he borrowed someone else's and kindly acknowledged that fact? So many of the other elements seem lifted from Stephen King, too; but throw in a particularly slow-moving police procedural and you have a book that overstays its welcome by at least 100 pages.
The resolutions are all highly unsatisfying. There are many mysteries in the book, none of which are resolved in a satisfying way? (You can keep reading - no spoilers here.) Why the kidnapper replaced a baby with a snake and how s/he got hold of that snake: unresolved. The mystery of the coyotes - resolved in a way that makes little sense. The motivations of the criminals/bad guys of the piece: unresolved and, apparently, unimportant to the author. The relevance of the boy's psychic abilities - unexplained.
Another thing that author did that drove me mad: In the middle of a scene that is supposed to be action-oriented, the author simply stops. He then later goes back and described what happened in the past tense. Why would a writer bring readers to a place of excitement and then abruptly slam the brakes on that excitement?
I was also surprised by the large number of egregious grammatical errors, as well as typos, in this book. Many phrases of the "who he was talking to" variety. Come on, author and publisher: I need to respect a book that I'm reading, especially one that I've paid $20+ for.
On the positive side: I think the cover is fabulous. But overall this book is way too long, too contrived, and too unsatisfying. The worshipful blurb from Stephen King on the back cover should have tipped me off. No more Stephen Dobyns for me.
Of course, this knowledge doesn't help us much while we travel the unraveling of the little town of Brewster." A baby disappears from the maternity ward, a corn snake is left in the crib, and the mother thought it was a Devil Baby. Meanwhile, the good folk of the town "spent all day looking out the window, looking for a chance to be indignant." ( This last quote is one of my favorites of all time.)
I spent a whole lot of this book getting confused, but not being able to look away. The true craftsmanship of this book is the portrayal of this little town that continues to stagger along as the world heaves further and further off course. I just adore little Hercel McGarty Jr. Who seems to be somewhere dead center or at the edge of all this weirdness. Even he becomes enamored of breakfast after some truly gross sights. And the world of men and women continues to ensnare. But the technique for this is dead on funny, darkly funny, really really blackly funny. Dobyn's even takes the time to make some pot shots at political correctness and just as many at bigotry.
The fact that I cannot adequately find the description for this book is high praise indeed. It's kind of like explain inning how a lobster or an oyster tastes you know? They taste like themselves. See what you think.
on March 6, 2015
Every so often there are certain books that due to plot alone will draw you in & keep you there no matter what. Stephen Dobyns' "The Burn Palace" is one of those books. It starts when Nurse Spandex (aka Alice Alessio) in the Brewster, RI hospital nursery finds a snake in place of a baby & goes from there across multiple murders, scalpings, & unexplainable events that plague this relatively peaceful town. Each event draws us further into the mystery of what is going on in this town & as each character is introduced from various doctors, policemen, detectives & local townsfolk the plot continues to thicken & expand in detail. Thrown in a mix of Satanism & Wiccan belief systems & the story grabs onto you & holds you with suspense up until the very end. Dobyns' book is written in a way that allows we the reader to follow the various plot threads & their intertwining parts well enough without confusion. The characters are very believable & Brewster could be any small town in America. The acts of violence whether supernatural or otherwise are really never described in any graphic fashion so as not to turn this into a horror novel but to keep this along the line of a murder mystery/suspense novel. The title Burn Palace location which references a local crematorium also plays a rather unique role in the book as the idea of harvesting body parts for profit comes into play as well. Overall a well written book that will keep you guessing up until the very end.
Stephen Dobyns has made his name in poetry and literary fiction and pulp mysteries. Here he brings us a tale of horror in the style of 1970s Stephen King. Sometimes such projects succeed handsomely, when an extremely talented artist gives us his take on a simple and formulaic genre. In this case, the results are more mixed.
The book relates several weeks of goings-on in a Rhode Island town where things start to go wrong -- stolen babies, murders, coyotes on the loose. And much of it seems to have supernatural overtones. The police, and the readers of the book, face the "simple" mysteries of, for example, what happened to the stolen babies, as well as the overall mystery of what is causing all these horrible things to happen at once.
The problem with this sort of story is that there are only two possible outcomes, either supernatural forces are at work or somebody is faking their involvement (the "Scooby-Doo" ending). It almost doesn't matter which answer Dobyns has chosen in this case, we've read it 1000 times before.
With no hope of delivering satisfaction in the denouement of the tale, the burden is on Dobyns to please the reader with compelling narrative, innovative story-telling, sympathetic characters, or a chilling atmosphere. He succeeds in part. I found the portions about the coyotes to be unsettling, effective and creepy. But the human villains (and heroes for that matter) are less memorable. The book has too many characters and it's too hard to keep some of them straight. The relationships seem perfunctory (one can almost hear Dobyns muttering to himself "let's give the guy a black friend," for example). Though some of Dobyns's earlier work is very funny, there is little humor to be found in this book.
The narrative switches from the traditional to a sort of Thorton-Wilderesque omniscient view in a couple of places. I liked this, especially the first time, and wonder if the book might have been better if Dobyns had been willing to be more experimental throughout.
Set in Rhode Island, Dobyns' nail biter of a novel evokes the atmosphere of early Dan Simmons, the suggestion of evil lurking in the dynamics of daily life, kick-started by an anomaly that begets a string of others in a chaotic pattern. The menace grows with each new complication, random events beginning with the theft of a newborn from its bed in the hospital nursery. Instead of a baby boy, the distracted nurse reporting late for duty finds a snake- or in her hysteria, what she sees as snakes. In the confusion that follows, the hospital is searched for more snakes, the missing infant near forgotten in the ensuing pandemonium. Not long after the incident at the hospital, an insurance investigator from out of town is found dead in his car near the Great Swamp- stabbed and scalped. There's more: a step-father turns more manic and threatening by the day, terrifying young Hercel McGarty, Jr., the owner of the snake that was placed in the baby's hospital crib; there are rumors of Satanic bacchanals in the swamp; and the stolen baby's mother doesn't want her infant returned, convinced it is the Devil's child.
The bizarre happenings accelerate, a worrisome uptick in the mortality rate for elderly folks at a local retirement home, Hercel's cat hung from a tree, aggressive coyotes attacking sheep at a rural farm, drawing closer by the day. As the local police and state troopers call in other departments to assist with the expanding work load, the acting sheriff proves painfully inept when faced with multiple investigations. Meanwhile trooper Woody Potter and state detective Bobby Anderson attempt to make sense of the growing mayhem that began with the kidnapping of the baby, Woody slightly distracted by a reporter he at first views with hostility. The result is a riveting study of the dark side of human nature and the contagion of corruption inspired by avarice. Ordinary folks are terrorized by unknown attacks in the night, the town inundated by marauding packs of coyotes, a madman turnedstalking killer and a crematorium that spews the thick smoke of human remains though its chimney. Evil lurks here, to be sure. It is the nature of that evil that haunts the pages of The Burn Palace. Luan Gaines/2013.
on February 27, 2013
Things are very uneasy in the small Providence suburb of Brewster. And it's not just because at the maternity ward of the local hospital a baby is missing and has been replaced by a giant snake.
No, there's a great deal more, and Woody Potter and his partner Bobby, two down-to-earth detectives are at the center of the investigation, which seems to grow weirder with each passing hour, such as a visiting insurance investigator is found dead in his car, with his scalp gone.
The townspeople are beginning to grow very restless and the objects of their suspicion are the local Wiccans, a legitimate if somewhat eccentric religious group, who are actually harmless and who believe in celebrating nature. Then there are the Satanists, who many believe are working their devil worship and curses on the town. Soon rocks are being thrown through Wiccan windows by ignorant people who can't tell a Wiccan from a wicker chair, but is all this a diversion for something far worse?
Dobyns has a great gift for weird ambiance. When a teenage girl is kidnapped by a man in a devil mask, she is later found dead hanging from a tree in the middle of a swamp on a local island. Her body has been gnawed at by animals and shot at by pellet guns. As an overweight cop makes his way through the swamp to look for her, He is almost sucked down into the miasma as he approaches the dreadful scene. Dobyns' description here is first rate, redolent with similarities to Conan Doyle's Great Grimpen Mire.
And then there are the coyotes. The town is full of them and more and more of them keep coming, hungry and looking for food. In one case they have jumped a wall and torn apart sheep and dogs -- not something coyotes are apt to do. The sheep farmer says they might be another breed: coywolves. "Coywolves might cross the wall and grab a sheep, but these are far more aggressive. They're coywolves plus something else. But I don't know what it would be." (P. 304) As Halloween approaches, the coyotes have made the streets of Brewster their own.
Woody eventually begins to center in on the town's funeral home and crematorium, otherwise known as the Burn Palace, which just might be the center of evil in the town.
However, Dobyns does not focus merely on the ugly side of human nature. One of his main themes is friendship. Woody and his partner would and do trust each other with their lives. Their friendship surpasses even their call to duty and the dangers they must face.
And then there's Hercel, a ten-year-old boy who has a brutal and brutish step-father. Hercel is a loner, but by choice, and a very self-contained, courageous boy. Then there's Baldo, who is just the opposite. A goof who loves jokes such as fart pillows. He noticed Hercel has a trick of his own which he begs to know, but Hercel won't let Baldo in on it. He remains obdurate. Baldo is persistent, and strong in his own dopy way, and if he can't get Hercel to show him the trick, he eventually at least earns his friendship. A very odd couple indeed!
So is what Hercel does a trick, or maybe a gift? Whatever it is, it saves his life.
And, oh yes, the snake and the baby. Well the snake turns out to be a harmless corn snake that is Hercel's pet. So what happened to that baby? Well... HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Laurence Coven is a freelance reviewer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications. He did receive a free copy of the book from the publicist for review purposes.
on December 29, 2013
I can see why Stephen King gave this book a good review...without adding any spoilers, it's fair to say that there are a number of unusual, seemingly disconnected events going on in a small town in Rhode Island (just down the road a bit from Stephen King's native Maine), and as the story progresses, things go from weird to weirder...good pace, good character development, and a good, solid ending to wrap it all up for the reader at the end. I found this to be an enjoyable read, and would recommend it to friends as such.
I can't stand watching scary movies, but a scary book on the other hand, I'm all over that. Dobyns takes what feels like your traditional sleepy novel of small town life and turns it on its head by opening the story with a baby in a hospital nursery being stolen and replaced with a writhing snake. From there the tension starts to coil-pun intended- as the locals are terrified, investigators are brought in, and the town that these people felt they knew so well becomes a violent stranger. Smarter than your average thriller, the book demands focus to keep the myriad of characters straight, but it's well worth it.