Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace (review)

February 2013

The Burn Palace
Stephen Dobyns

  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press (February 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399160876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399160875

I had an advance copy of this novel for review purposes, and I must say I’m pleased to have been able to read it sooner than later. Because it was that good.

If you look up what information is available you may see this described as a horror novel. It is not. However, I can’t give you a cubbyhole to put it in, not even a pithy title x meets title y kind of description. So here are the basics: a small town in Rhode Island, a series of inexplicable and sometimes bizarre crimes and murders (some of the details are horrifying, but just briefly), and a healthy rumor mill that works overtime in order to come up with an explanation which will make the whole business less creepy. Because there are some creepy elements. So the stories of Satanists, baby cannibalism, orgies, Wicca excesses and shape shifters begin to make the rounds and evolve until you’ve got a town on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is the framework of the story, the engine that keeps it going.

But the heart of this novel is the town of Brewster and the people in the town. Awful, irritating, disturbing but also (and sometimes, in the same person) sweet, funny and engaging. There’s Woody Potter, a state police detective who is descending into depression after his girlfriend leaves him, Jill Franklin, a would-be reporter who gets on his bad side from the get-go and then, gradually, gets under his skin. There’s Acting Police Chief Fred Bonaldo (who Woody thinks should be called Pretend Police Chief) who has no credentials but uses all his connections to wiggle his way into the job because he loves parades and uniforms and wants to walk in the annual parade in that particular uniform. He is, of course, immediately overwhelmed by the crime spree, but blunders along. There are ambulance drivers with questionable habits, aging hippies raising sheep, a step-father who is off his medications and slowly evolving (he believes) into a truly dangerous dog; opera loving sheriffs and nurses who are desperate and others who are the calm at the heart of the storm.

Most of all there is a small group of children, and two kids in that group: Hercel (short for Hercules) a smart and highly capable kid who has a lot to deal with at home (the stepfather mentioned above is his) as well as a couple talents he prefers not to share with the world, and his counter part in every way, Baldo Bonaldo. Baldo is the youngest and best beloved child of Pretend Police Chief Fred Bonaldo and looks just like him “rotund and plodding, with a similar redfaced, swollen look, though he was more than a foot shorter, didn’t wear glasses, and had all of his hair…. a gesticulator.”

Baldo is known far and wide for his addiction to the kind of practical jokes best appreciated by fifth grade boys; he spends all his allowance sending away for the latest advances in fart cushions, and he is always absolutely sure nobody will suspect it was him who put the burping powder in the library staff’s coffee urn.

These day-to-day episodes are so authentic in tone that they lend the odd and increasingly violent crime spree a sheen of reality. Characters who show up only briefly somehow get your attention long before they venture into harm’s way. I’m not going to say more here about the most frightening characters and their motivations, because I really don’t want to give too much away. It would be a shame to ruin the experience of discovering it for yourself.

Dobyns is extremely well established as a poet, an author of fiction and essays with a long list of publications. I had never read anything of his before Burn Palace, but that’s a lack I will be rectifying.