Is Our Writers Learning? Only the Dead Know Burbank (#SFWApro)

ONLY THE DEAD KNOW BURBANK by Bradford Tatum (cover design by Gregg Kulick, all rights to current holder) has an interesting concept and some beautiful writing, but not much else. I gave up midway.

THE STORY: Maddy is a young girl in Germany, growing up before WW I. After various adventures, she’s turned into an undead (a scene poetic enough that I don’t mind the vagueness of what exactly happened), then winds up working in early German cinema. Her undead nature gives her a unique understanding of horror which ultimately leads her to Hollywood where she becomes the genius who secretly gives birth to Universal’s classic horror films.

WHAT I LEARNED

Style and description are nice, but not without substance. Lord Dunsany has style, but he also has great stories to tell. Tatum, not so much. In fairness to Tatum, that’s because this is 90 percent a historical non-fantasy novel, and I don’t care for those. The endless details of Maddy’s mundane life, or of Weimar-era decadence, just don’t fascinate me in themselves. The movie-making scenes are the most interesting, but not interesting enough to entertain me.

Don’t let writing drown out feeling. The thing that started me skimming is that Maddy’s voice is very detached. She describes her setting and physical sensation in detail, but rarely with passion, even when she gets raped. I know she’s dead and remembering all this from decades later, but it still makes it hard to care. The only time we see flashes of passion are, again, when she’s working on the movies (Tatum is a screenwriter/actor).

Enough with gratuitous rape. There’s a rape scene in the first third that serves no purpose other than to show how horrible Maddy’s life is. As many people have pointed out, using rape to convey utter horror or a living hell has been way overdone. And it’s usually gratuitous, as in this case: Maddy died, she’s being possessed/mind-controlled but she has to be raped as well? And while the rape is graphic, we never really see the emotional after effects (partly because Tatum, as noted, buried strong emotion under Maddie’s listless voice).

Don’t offer deep thoughts if you don’t have them. What convinced me to stop reading was when Maddy tells someone that the core of Dracula is incest. Dracula wants a lover, but he has to “sire” the women he loves to turn them into vampires. So they’re his daughters and his lovers. So incest. Sorry, that’s just silly. And I don’t believe anyone used “sire” in vampire stories that long ago (there are other words that seem too modern, like “desensitized” in reference to horror having too much gore and violence).

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