The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns
Read by George Newbern
Length: 13 Hrs 34 Min
Genre: Literary Suspense
Quick Thoughts: 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.
I often hear people lament those good old small town days where everyone knew each other and kept an eye out for strangers and danger and stranger danger. I never experienced that. I have always lived in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area and only rarely even knew the names of my neighbors. I was always lucky enough where by the time I reached the next block, I was walking in anonymity, far from any nosy neighbors who may tell my mother what nefarious deeds I was up to. I can understand longing for a time when neighbors were neighborly, but people must remember I grew up on Stephen King. I read tales of small towns with dark secrets and twisted evil. I don’t want to know my neighbors. I don’t want to know what dark secrets lie in their hearts or how the choose to spend their time when the lights are off and no one is paying attention. For all I know, the upstairs neighbors could be performing cabalistic rituals and animal sacrifice, and I’m happy as long as they don’t bang around too much when they are getting their kids ready for school in the morning. I’m happy with the nod my head and smile relationship I have with the guy next door and have no need to know that his inner dialogue consists of thinking of all the different ways he would dispose of my corpse after my torturous murder. You know why I don’t want to know more about my neighbors because I’m damn sure they probably don’t want to know about me. Would you really want to know that the guy next door to you enjoys listening to tale involving hordes of undead infected humans devouring the land one brain at a time? For Fun! Really, we are all better off. Let my neighbors perform some ancient ritual that unleashes Cthulhu from his inter-dimensional prison to eat the souls of the wicked as long as they keep the chanting down while I’m watching Doctor Who.
Brewster is a small, quiet Rhode Island town that nothing of note ever really happens in, at least on the surface. When a baby goes missing from the local hospital and is replaced by a snake, the town begins to unravel leading to a string of violence, mayhem and maybe even something supernatural. The Burn Palace is a character rich genre blending tale of small town paranoia, occultism and murder with affective results. Dobyns creates a mosaic of characters, where their dark secrets and hidden motivations become just as essential to the plot as the evil acts that have thrown this sleepy town for a loop. Dobyns develops each character so intricately that they just jump off the page. He tells the tale using an omniscient third person narrator making it seem almost as if the town itself was telling the tale. While this created a lot of wonderful moments in the tale, it also made the story a bit unbalanced. Dobyns transitions from one character to the next is an almost surreal manner opening a lot of story threads along the way, and never quite wrapping the vast majority of them up. While the prose was relatively straight forward, it gave it an airy almost intangible feel, where just as you began to grasp onto one element of the plot, it slipped through your fingers leaving you to chase after the next tangent. It created an atmospheric mood full of clever humor, creepy moments and horrific acts that mesmerized the reader but didn’t always serve the story well. This is the gist of my mixed feelings with The Burn Palace. I loved listening to it. I loved the characters who were all so vibrant and real. I loved the clever way that certain elements played into the overall plot while others were just there to add color. Yet, I felt like I do at the end of a long running TV series finale, full of "what about this, and what about that." I enjoyed the hell out of listening to the tale, but I also felt frustrated along the way. Overall, 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.
Let me first say that I absolutely loved George Newbern’s narration of The Burn Place. For The Burn Palace to work, the narrator must become a character of sort, and not just some unbiased observer. He guides you through the tale, taking you from character to character with a sort of knowingness, exposing each character for who they truly are. Newbern does this wonderfully, injecting personality into the prose, guiding the listener with a wink and a nudge. That being said, I think I would have enjoyed this novel more in print than audio. It’s not an issue with the production at all, but in the style of the book. Dobyns flowing transitions probably worked better with visual cues than here in audio. The transitions were so fast and so smooth that at times it took you a while to figure out that anything even had changed. Often, throughout the audio, I was like, "Ummm. Wait… what character are we on now?" These transitions required more focus from the listener than usual during an audiobook. In fact, I really wished that this audio came with a cast of characters, because, although every character was so vivid and real, the rapid change from one to the next often made me have to stop for a moment to remember the new character’s backstory. Not that it was a bad listen, I really enjoyed it. If you are someone who listens strictly to audio, by all means, give this one a go, but if it’s a choice for you between print and audio, well, I would probably recommend trying it first in print.
Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.