The Burn Palace

( 8 )

Overview

The sleepy community of Brewster, Rhode Island, is just like any other small American town. It’s a place where most of the population will likely die blocks from where they were born; where gossip spreads like wildfire, and the big entertainment on weekends is the inevitable fight at the local bar. But recently, something out of the ordinary—perhaps even supernatural—has been stirring in Brewster. While packs of coyotes gather on back roads and the news spreads that a baby has been stolen from Memorial Hospital ...

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Overview

The sleepy community of Brewster, Rhode Island, is just like any other small American town. It’s a place where most of the population will likely die blocks from where they were born; where gossip spreads like wildfire, and the big entertainment on weekends is the inevitable fight at the local bar. But recently, something out of the ordinary—perhaps even supernatural—has been stirring in Brewster. While packs of coyotes gather on back roads and the news spreads that a baby has been stolen from Memorial Hospital (and replaced in its bassinet by a snake), a series of inexplicably violent acts begins to confound Detective Woody Potter and the local police—and inspire terror in the hearts and minds of the locals.

From award-winning author Stephen Dobyns comes a sardonic yet chillingly suspenseful novel: the literary equivalent of a Richard Russo small-town tableau crossed with a Stephen King thriller. The Burn Palace is a darkly funny, twisted portrait of chaos and paranoia, with an impressive host of richly rendered, larger-than-life characters and a thrilling plot that will keep readers guessing until the final pages.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The latest from the prolific Dobyns (after Eating Naked) is by turns an affectionate portrait of smalltown life, a terrifying supernatural thriller, and a sly horror comedy. Brewster, R.I., is a sleepy burg populated with a cast of lovable eccentrics. But something is wrong in this prototypical New England town. First, a baby is stolen from a local hospital and a huge striped snake put in the bassinet in its place. Then a body is found scalped in the woods. Meanwhile, packs of murderous coyotes make increasingly daring attacks on the townspeople. Most disturbing of all, locals begin coming forward with stories of strange rituals in the woods. For detective Woody Potter and acting police chief Fred Bonaldo, it’s obvious something evil is afoot, perhaps to do with the town’s new yoga center, or maybe linked to suspicious goings-on at the nearby funeral home. As the authorities descend from multiple jurisdictions creating chaos, it takes the help of young Hercel McGarity Jr., a 10-year-old who may possess the town’s only benign magical powers, to give the people of Brewster a chance to defend themselves against something far darker than anyone imagined. Despite the novel’s complexity, Dobyns gives his many characters space to come alive and allows each of the spooky subplots time to build maximum suspense. Scenes of young Hercel being menaced by a madman start out merely disturbing, but turn into some of the scariest in recent literature. Dobyn’s tone, shifting from amused to sinister and back again, elevates the material by buttressing the horror with pitch black humor. A tour de force genre buster that could be a breakout. Agent: Phyllis Westberg, Harold Ober Associates. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"The Burn Palace is a beautifully written tale full of wonderfully absurd characters, strange surreal events and horrific acts of violence and violation told is a disconcerting style that is both thrilling and frustrating. It's like an intricate puzzle that comes together beautifully yet leaves you with a handful of unused pieces you don't exactly know what to do with." - The Guilded Earlobe
Library Journal
Brewster, RI, is a small town in a small state, and seems an unlikely place for drama. But this is New England, and how better to stir hysteria and cover up a crime ring than to invoke witchcraft? Poet and novelist Dobyns performs just this bit of magic in his first novel since 1999's Boy in the Water. State trooper Woody Potter is called to Brewster when a baby disappears from the hospital, with a snake left in its bassinet instead. As Halloween approaches, the baby snatching turns out to be the first in a string of strange occurrences in town, including satanic ceremonies, coyotes in the streets, and murder. The mayhem borders on complete chaos until Woody, his partner Bobby, and other state troopers start to put the pieces together and discover the real-world sources of the related crimes. VERDICT This is an intricate who-done-it with richly drawn characters, a superb sense of place, and just enough otherworldly action to tantalize. Requiring close attention, it is not for those looking for a quick read but should appeal to readers of literary mysteries and lovers of New England fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 8/3/12]—Nancy H. Fontaine, Norwich P.L., VT
Kirkus Reviews
Atmospheric New England supernaturalism from not-Stephen King, but a latter-day disciple who deservedly earns the master's praise. Nurse Spandex is a size-10 woman in size-two garb, but that doesn't keep her from making a career of seducing the docs on the floor of the Rhode Island hospital at which she works. Bad idea, since one fervent night, a newborn goes missing from the incubator, with a big scary snake wriggling around in the baby's place. Cue screaming and jiggling, for as Dobyns (Eating Naked, 2000, etc.) rightly and elegantly notes, "Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace." True that. Woody Potter, world-weary local cop and damaged Iraq veteran, has not just the case of the substitute snake to worry about, but also that of a dead insurance agent. MacGuffins abound, but then so do red herrings: Does the key to the mystery lie with a local funeral-home denizen who has suddenly taken to communing with the coyotes and is a rather surly chap ("What the fuck would I hang a cat for?"), with the neighborhood Wiccan coven, with Ouroboros worshippers or with James Earl Jones in his Conan the Barbarian role? Well, the last doesn't figure, but with Dobyns' catholic approach to possibilities, he might just as well. Finally, Woody pulls together enough evidence to lead him in a different and altogether more sinister direction that, suffice it to say, may make a reader think twice about spending a night in the hospital. An utterly believable tale, and Dobyns isn't above scaring the reader silly with surprise twists and turns. Nicely done--and you may never look at doctors the same way again.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold famously called culture the "pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, in all matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world." As our bestseller lists attest, the practice of discriminating between what is and isn't worth getting to know is less common today — but it isn't dead. It survives, in a small way, in our fondness for the phrase "guilty pleasure." We may no longer resist rolling in the muck, but at least we spare a passing thought for the garden hose.

Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace, a giant headstone of a book with a blood-red snake on the cover, certainly looks like muck. Its lone blurb, long and overwrought, is from Stephen King. Its horrors promise to unfold, as horrors will, in a "sleepy community" that is "just like any other small American town." Said horrors will include a kidnapped baby and a pack of (maybe) supernatural coyotes. Dobyns's target market seems to be business travelers who couldn't get their Lunesta refilled in time. The reader who distinguishes between legitimate and guilty pleasures will expect to find The Burn Palace very guilty indeed.

The aforementioned baby, taken from a maternity ward, is replaced with a massive corn snake. An insurance investigator pursuing an off-the-clock lead pokes his nose where it doesn't belong and — well, let's say it becomes clear that he won't be the novel's hero. Casting long shadows over these proceedings are a dodgy funeral home and crematorium, and a local conclave of New Age types, which comes to inspire panicked allegations of Satanism. Things get weirder still as Dobyns introduces an unraveling, abusive stepfather and his (perhaps) telekinetic stepson, an unmistakable homage to King's The Shining and Carrie.

The setting is Brewster, Rhode Island, a fictitious village in the tradition of King's Derry and Castle Rock, Maine. Brewster is both painstakingly rendered and utterly nondescript. Even the bit of historical-society trivia Dobyns invents — "the town of Brewster began as Brewster Corners, a post house . . . built in 1730s by Wrestling Brewster" — recalls Lenny Bruce's comment about small towns that "once you've seen the cannon in the park there's nothing else to do." This is by design, of course. Dobyns is going to show us the dark side of the ostensibly pleasant and uneventful hamlet.

It's an old, venerable trope. In the American tradition we find it as early as Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," to which Dobyns may owe the germ of this book; we find it in Cheever, in Peyton Place, in Blue Velvet, and in 2013 it might come as a surprise to a young person that small towns were ever considered something other than whitewashed lairs of unspeakable depravity. Whether one thinks Dobyns has done anything novel with the "seedy underbelly" mythos will determine how guilty one feels about reading and enjoying a book as lurid and, yes, preposterous as The Burn Palace.

Well, here's one interpretation: What he's done with it is drive a stake through its tired old heart.

Though Dobyns is well known for a series of detective novels set in Saratoga Springs, New York, he is also a professor, an award- winning poet, and a prolific writer of non-genre fiction. When a writer strays as far from his beat as Dobyns has with The Burn Palace, it's hard not to ask why. Is he trying his hand at a potentially lucrative new genre? Is he honoring the Dark Lord from Maine? Or is he, in fact, writing a bold and crafty parody of King - - and perhaps even of fear itself?

To consider how gleefully Dobyns piles on the clichés and stock characters is to answer the question. Nobody who sets his novel at Halloween; throws in a pretty much literal witch hunt; and divvies up the heroism between buddy cops, plucky youngsters, and a seemingly daffy (but conveniently observant) senior citizen can possibly be playing it straight. The Burn Palace does have a fairly insistent subtext about small-town nosiness, gossip, and hysteria, but it feels far less like an indictment of those tendencies than a reminder of how ordinary they are.

If the proliferating absurdities of Dobyns's tale add up to a comment on actual small-town life, that comment is: Nothing like this is happening behind closed doors, even if some darker part of us might wish otherwise.

But then, a harsher take on the "guilty pleasure" designation is that it's just a way of lying to ourselves. If the kind of person you imagine yourself to be wouldn't take pleasure in a particular book, but you find yourself panting over its pages anyway, it might be time to revise that fine opinion of yourself, no? Maybe the impulse to wring a hidden purpose — and, needless to say, an elitist one — out of The Burn Palace is just a variation on that old self-deception.

So, a word of warning. If you read the The Burn Palace, be prepared to learn a harsh lesson about yourself. You may discover you just plain like gritty police procedurals, and lurid descriptions of savage violence, and jaw-dropping improbabilities, and, yes, telling your inner Matthew Arnold to bugger off once in a while.

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410459633
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 7/24/2013
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 617
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

The sleepy community of Brewster, Rhode Island, is just like any other small American town. It’s a place where most of the population will likely die blocks from where they were born; where gossip spreads like wildfire, and the big entertainment on weekends is the inevitable fight at the local bar. But recently, something out of the ordinary—perhaps even supernatural—has been stirring in Brewster. While packs of coyotes gather on back roads and the news spreads that a baby has been stolen from Memorial Hospital (and replaced in its bassinet by a snake), a series of inexplicably violent acts begins to confound Detective Woody Potter and the local police—and inspire terror in the hearts and minds of the locals.

From award-winning author Stephen Dobyns comes a sardonic yet chillingly suspenseful novel: the literary equivalent of a Richard Russo small-town tableau crossed with a Stephen King thriller. The Burn Palace is a darkly funny, twisted portrait of chaos and paranoia, with an impressive host of richly rendered, larger-than-life characters and a thrilling plot that will keep readers guessing until the final pages.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Hercel had seen coyotes before, and a week earlier he had seen two in the tall grass down by the beach. And he knew they took people’s pets; kids talked about it in school. They got in people’s trash and skulked around at night. But he had never heard of them chasing anybody. The coyotes’ yapping was almost like singing.
 
Moments later, Hercel saw a light ahead of him through the trees. The coyotes were right behind him. In the bits of silence within their yapping, he heard the click of their nails against the road’s hard surface. Hercel stood up and pedaled harder, slipped off the road but kept his balance. The muscles in his thighs ached, and his fingers hurt from clutching the grips. The light was brighter. Ahead, to the left, he saw a stone wall and then a gate. It had to be the farm. He heard the coyotes panting.  Trying to quiet his terror, he aimed at the wall.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 8 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2013

    Pretty Good

    I bought this book because I saw a blurb from Stephen King praising it. While the story was good, and I liked the main characters, I saw the conclusion coming long before the end of the book and it wasn't as well-written as I would have liked. I'm not sure where the comparisons to Stephen King's work are coming from, this novel wasn't nearly as inventive, well-written, or compelling as one of King's. I did enjoy reading "The Burn Palace" but it wasn't great.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 26, 2013

    This book was really disappointing to me. I struggled through i

    This book was really disappointing to me. I struggled through it but really did not enjoy it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2013

    Blah

    Over rated

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2013

    Mckenna

    *Mckenna stood back up, pressing her hips close to him*

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2013

    Blake

    Mmmmmmm

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Hi

    Hi.

    0 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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