Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns: The Burn Palace

Stephen Dobyns‘ new novel, The Burn Palace, is a difficult book to deconstruct. TheDobyns narrative is a tangle of shifting perspectives and sharp turns, and stylistically, is a bit disarming at first.

However, we’re in the hands of an old master. What Dobyns does better than most is capture the quirks and suspicions of small-town America, and similar to his 1997 masterpiece, The Church of Dead Girls, The Burn Palace offers us an eagle-eyed, warts-and-all perspective of residents of Brewster, Rhode Island.

As with the loose-ended Church, the horror lives not so much in the conflict, but rather in how the residents respond to the conflict. In this novel, Dobyns’ first in more than a decade, the catalytic event is a dramatic kidnapping. A newborn has been stolen from the local hospital, replaced with a corn snake, and thus, the town of Brewster is shrouded in mystery and controversy.

And fear.

From the local diner to holistic healing centers, Brewster is that odd amalgamation of new age/old age found in many small towns. It is also a town of secrets and tragedy and disaster. Dobyns brings to life the town’s diverse personalities, going to door to door in a literary trick or treat.

It’s kind of like Winesburg, Ohio—if Sherwood Anderson had grown up on Stephen King’s street.

Of course, the prose is excellent, and only someone like Dobyns could reconcile this many narratives and POVs in one book. That said, this is a dense work, more so for the constant shifting of perspectives, never setting us on stable ground.

But then again, isn’t that the point? Rather than simply using his words to construct a referent, Dobyns, with his background in poetry, uses the words themselves to disorient, to make us confused, uncomfortable and always uncertain, but excited, about what comes next.

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Unsettling Chapters: The Church of Dead Girls

Frequent readers have probably noticed a pattern among the entries of Unsettling Chapters. That is, the overt theme of a story is more often a sleight of hand. Put another way: The thing is not really about the thing.

Lovecraft’s Old Ones are a manifestation of his insecurities. McEwan’s transgressions are a front for the anxiety of individuality in the face of rigid and arbitrary social mores. Murakami’s gore portrays mental disturbances rather than literal scenes.

And so it goes with Stephen Dobyns’ 1997 mystery, The Church of Dead Girls.

As with Birdman, Mo Hayder’s debut discussed on Oct. 5, the ghoul in this novel uses human corpses as an artistic medium. But while The Church of Dead Girls offers terror and thrills, it also has high-minded literary aspirations.

The thing is not really about the thing.

This is less a whodunit and more a sociological work. What are the fears and biases of small-town folk? What prejudices are lurking in the shadows? A rash of murders and missing teenagers brings them all to the surface. Things get ugly.

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” ugly.

Once threatened, the townsfolk begin pointing fingers in every possible direction. This compelling arc makes for a fascinating read. And gruesomely detailed horrors make this a must-read for Halloween.

Speaking of fingers, whatever happened to those missing left hands?

Read the book and you’ll understand.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.