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.
"Part crime novel, part horror story, and part character study, THE BURN PALACE is worth savoring slowly and re-reading."
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 February 8, 2013