Stephen Dobyns’ sprawling, sardonic horror novel The Burn Palace, set in a quiet little Rhode Island town called Brewster, opens with a grabber of a scene in a maternity ward. A nurse sneaks a quickie with a doctor in the room “where that poor colored woman had died in the afternoon,” then finds that while she was distracted, sinister forces abducted a newborn baby from its crib and replaced it with a stolen pet garden snake. Understandably unstrung by this turn of events, the nurse freaks out so badly that she imagines that the crib is crawling with reptiles, and when local police detective Woody Potter arrives on the scene, the hospital is full of cops checking under beds and in broom closets for snakes. Woody, a newly single Desert Storm veteran whose cool head and deceptively overwhelmed demeanor mark him as the novel’s everyman hero, can’t help but feel that, in the crucial early moments of the investigation, people are acting as if the nonexistent snakes are more important than the missing baby.
This helps set up readers for deep thoughts about paranoia and mass panic—which are among the book’s themes—and misdirection, which is Dobyns’ favorite storytelling technique. He’s figured out that setting a mystery among a bunch of frightened people with overactive imaginations jumping to false conclusions is a good excuse for shoveling in a lot of red herrings, and between the sinister townspeople (chief among them the bullying stepfather of the kid who lost his snake) and the Wiccans and reports of Satanic worshippers gathering for vile ceremonies in the woods and the weird New Age facility with the mesmeric massage therapist and the suspicious coyote-related activities, he doesn’t hold back. He also packs the book with characters, many of them drawn from stock, but all of whom he sketches in with about the same degree of facile, cartoon vividness, so it isn’t immediately clear who is and who isn’t going to matter much to how the story turns out. So when people start getting horribly murdered, it’s mostly just a relief that it’s finally becoming a little easier to keep track of the scorecard.
The Burn Palace comes with an enthusiastic blurb from Stephen King, and it’s easy to see why he might have read it and felt most sincerely flattered. At 464 pages, it’s in the “New England town goes nutzoid” mold of such King doorstops as It, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, and Dreamcatcher, complete with a Halloween time frame and a group of endangered children, one of whom may have telekinetic powers. Dobyns, a creative-writing teacher and author of 35 previous novels, short-story collections, and books of poetry, has probably packed more dry wit and style into his career than King packed into his last 35 books, but what he can’t provide is that crude storytelling drive that King has, the sense of “Omigod, I gotta tell you all this right this minute, so clear your afternoon!”
Dobyns’ book is entirely readable, but it has the feel of a mechanical exercise, a literary writer skillfully trying to concoct a commercial hit from a proven formula. He even surrounds Woody with a handy array of backup heroes—a wisecracking black cop, a tough-as-nails woman cop, and the placeholder police chief, who just wants to be liked and feels in over his head—as if he wanted to give whoever eventually writes the screenplay some options, so that if, say, Josh Brolin’s agent passes, he can always drop Woody entirely and beef up the role that gets offered to Will Smith, Noomi Rapace, or Steve Carell. Before Stephen King invented the baggy-monster horror bestseller, there was a generally accepted rule that horror works best when it’s swift, slim, and to the point. Maybe King gets away with bucking that rule because, in spite of his flirtations with mainstream fiction, he’s always been a horror novelist at his core. Writers who aren’t genre specialists, but are trying to tap into his audience, imitate his formula (and his page counts) at their peril.