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.