cover image The Burn Palace

The Burn Palace

Stephen Dobyns. Penguin/Blue Rider, $26.95 (480p) ISBN 978-0-399-16087-5

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.)