Click here to read reviewer Steven Rosen's take on The Burn Palace.
Like early Stephen King and Dan Simmons, Stephen Dobyns possesses the accessible narrative style that draws a reader into the pages of his chilling novel. The Burn Palace, fraught with implications of Satanic worship and unspeakable evil, begins when a baby is abducted from a Brewster, Rhode Island, hospital. A nurseólate to arrive to check on the newborns because of an assignationódiscovers the baby missing, the crib filled with snakes, plural. In her hysteria, she sees snakes everywhere, the ensuing chaos nearly obscuring the search for the infant. No matter. The mother doesn't want the baby found: "A Devil baby. I'm glad it's gone."
As rumors fly and gossip spreads, a visiting insurance investigator is found in his car near the Great Swamp. He has been brutally murdered... and scalped. Then there are the stories of Satanic bacchanals in the swamp, of young women raped by a goat-like figure. Aggressive coyotes stalk rural farmers, threatening their stock. The town begins to shiver, excitement replaced by fear and suspicion of unnatural events. State Trooper Woody Potter is in the middle of a confused investigation, the acting sheriff not equipped for cases of this variety and magnitude and requesting assistance from outside communities and agencies. State police detective Bobby Anderson, a black cop with whom Woody enjoys a special camaraderie, joins the trooper in an attempt to make sense of the escalating incidents that seem to have no connection.
The town is further frightened by random vigilante attacks on local Wiccans and other "suspicious" characters, and reports of marauding coyotes, or "shape-shifters," add to the escalating hysteria as All Hallows' Eve nears. There's more: Hercel McGarty, Jr., teenage owner of the stolen snake found in the nursery, is terrified of his stepfather, Carl Krause, whose behavior has grown more erratic and menacing by the day. Anderson takes a report from an elderly lady who worries over the number of residents recently decreased in her convalescent home. Hercel's cat is found hanging from a tree outside his house. Evidence is accumulating in a town besieged by Satanists, where unspeakable things are happening and menace lurks everywhere. The local crematorium spews out the noxious fumes of incinerated bodies at the edge of a nature preserve, the business of life and death continuing apace.
Dobyns constructs this tale of terror through the lives of his characters and their relationships: Hercel's growing fear of Mr. Krause's intentions; the ambulance drivers who get high every shift; the old couple whose sheep are menaced by aggressive coyotes; Potter's unexpected attraction to reporter Jill Franklin; three children linked in friendship and terror; and a plot to defraud that grows more violent as it winds down. With the occult, the Satanists and the marauding coyotes, The Burn Palace is filled with menace and dread, truth obfuscated by hysteria, evil flourishing in random violence. Dobyns is in firm control of his superbly plotted novel until the final harrowing page, a true master of menace.