Book: “Only the Dead Know Burbank” by Bradford Tatum
Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, October 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: With Lon Cheney and Boris Karloff among its characters, this sweeping and stylish love letter to the golden age of horror cinema tells the wonderful, tragic story of Maddy Ulm. It takes readers through her rise from the complicated shadows of Berlin’s first experiments with expressionist cinema to the glamorous deserts of Hollywood. For Maddy has a secret. A secret that has given her incredible insight into the soul of horror. A secret that has a terrible price as well.
A young girl awakens in a hastily dug grave—vague memories of blood and fever, her mother performing a mysterious ceremony before the world went away. Germany has lost the first great war and Europe has lost millions more to the Spanish Flu epidemic. But Maddy has not only survived, she has changed. No longer does she eat, sleep, or age. No longer can she die. After taking up with a pair of street performers, she shocks and fascinates the crowds with her ability to survive outrageous traumas. But at a studio in Berlin, Maddy discovers her true calling: film.
With her intimate knowledge of fear, death, and realms beyond the living, she practically invents the modern horror genre on the spot. Before long, she travels to California and insinuates herself in Hollywood as the genius secretly behind The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, and Frankenstein. And yet she must remain in the shadows—a chilling apparition suspended eternally between worlds.
Clever, tragic, and thoroughly entertaining, Only the Dead Know Burbank introduces readers to one of the most unique, unforgettable characters in fiction.
Review: This past Halloween weekend, I was attending a bonfire gathering of former coworkers. Me and my friend Scott were the first to arrive, and as we build the bonfire and chatted he told me about a book that he had heard of and was interested in. When he told me it was about a girl in Germany is some kind of immortal state who takes an interest in movie making and moves to Hollywood, having a hand in making the Golden Age of Horror movies that define the time… I too was interested. As someone who likes horror, someone who likes vampire(?) lore, and someone who really likes the Golden Age of Horror Films, this should have been a home run right out of the park.
The bad news is that it didn’t quite even get a double.
The good news is, Boris Karloff is a treasure.
I stand by my assertion that this plot does have a lot of serious potential and promise. Madchen, or Maddy, is a very well rounded and relatable protagonist, a girl who is trapped in stasis and has ambitions that are beyond a world she does not fit into anymore. She is a tragic figure who never asked for this eternal life, the ‘victim’ of a ritual performed by her negligent and narcissistic mother who, in a rare moment of love for her daughter, tried to save her from the Spanish Flu. Maddy is haunted by her immortality, and also haunted by the spirit of a cruel man named Volker, who may or may not be her father, and fell victim to murder at the hands of her mother. Unfortunately, the tangles and drama in Weimar Germany and Austria really dragged the narrative down, and while I appreciated the references to German Expressionism and the undoubted influence it had on Maddy, and therefore the films she would influence, I just kind of wanted for her to go west, young vampire(?).
By the time we did get to Hollywood, things picked up, and it was lots of fun seeing Maddy interact with familiar icons of the Universal Horror circuit. From Lon Chaney to Tod Browning to a superb and sweet Boris Karloff, Maddy interacts with legends of old and her unique perspective on death and existential crises helps create the masterpieces of cinema that are still heralded today. And yet the song is still the same, as she is influential and instrumental, but as a young woman she gets absolutely no credit and is never taken seriously. These parts were the best parts of the book for me, and her friendships with Chaney and Karloff (especially Karloff, whom she affectionately called “Billy”) gave her that much more heart and rounded out two real life giants who had flaws, dreams, and spirit. Karloff is such a gentle and thoughtful soul in this book, and for whatever reason that just plucked at all my heartstrings.
But Maddy’s greatest relationship is the one she has with Mutter, a gentle giant she meets while still in Europe, who was wounded in WWI and permanently maimed both physically and mentally. Mutter is the other great tragedy of this book, as while he is so unattached from others around him for being different and special needs, his affection for and connection to Maddy is one of those tenuous threads that does connect her to humans. Maddy’s fondness for him is absolutely touching, and it leads to many moments where the two of them, defined and limited by their Otherness, are in this together, and against the world. True, one of his storylines felt awkward and superfluous (he ends up living with a number of the Native American actors who live on the studio lot, on call for roles as disposable extras, and the view and description of them made me uncomfortable because they too were so Othered), but their final bit together really, really hit me right in the gut. Because Maddy and Mutter find themselves being shipped back to Germany, right when Hitler has taken power…
Unfortunately, while I liked these really well done nuggets of characterization and mythology, the pacing was very slow, almost to the point where I was close to giving up on it. Whenever Maddy was back in Germany, the odd storyline with Volker and the baggage that comes with Maddy and her mother weighed down the narrative. It wasn’t as bad the second time, but it definitely hurt the tone to the point where I couldn’t really get past it. I also feel like it probably went on a bit longer than it had to, as the extended adventures with her mother in Hollywood were just not what I was here for. I was here for Boris Karloff. I wanted more Boris Karloff.
There were moments of “Only the Dead Know Burbank” that were absolutely beautiful in their power, tenderness, and despair. I lived for those moments. I just wish that it hadn’t taken so long to get there, and that we didn’t get slogged in parental angst. Overall, Maddy was a lovely and fascinating creature, and I will no doubt think of her whenever I rewatch an old monster movie from the 1930s.
Rating 6: Though it had moments of beautiful pathos and super fun and moving portrayals of classic movie stars, the slow start and disjointed focus in certain plot points made the book a bit harder to swallow than I had hoped for.
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