Only the Dead Know Burbank by Bradford Tatum
HarperCollins Publishers, 2016
Available: Paperback, Kindle edition
Only the Dead Know Burbank starts out in post-World War I Germany, after the Spanish flu epidemic has passed. Maddy Ulm, a young woman whose mother cast a mysterious spell on her before her premature death, pulls herself out of her own grave. She discovers she cannot die, but she also cannot age, and when she eats, she tastes nothing but ash. She knows nothing of where her mother has gone; she is alone. She sets out to find…something? Someone? She’s not quite sure. She eventually meets and joins up with street performers, including Mutter, an injured soldier with a love of theatrics. Together, they perform dramatic traumas and seeming resurrections on the small stage. Then Maddy discovers film, and her love of the horrific. When Universal Pictures discovers one of her masterpieces, Maddy travels to Hollywood. There, she meets and works with some of the Hollywood greats, creating some of the most memorable images in horror history. She channels her innate knowledge of the supernatural, fear, death, and undeath into her art, but is never allowed to head the projects she loves so much. She wants more. Throughout her story, she catches glimpses of her mother, occasionally meeting with her and her father. As the story progresses, Maddy discovers more about herself, her family, and what she is capable of.
I was apprehensive about this at the beginning. Maddy’s childhood is nothing more than a mother providing for her child and surviving the only way she knew how—through sex, death, and art. Maddy was never shielded from anything happening, and was even present at times. It would be fair to say Maddy was never treated as a child. She came into the world observing the adult world through her mother, a very cold woman who withheld any kind of affection from Maddy. Dealing with her mother makes Maddy a survivor, and she develops skills that aid her through the rest of her life, leading her to become an extremely strong female character.
Mutter is another character in this story worth mentioning. Mutter, before his injury, was a German soldier who Maddy encountered briefly when her mother was entertaining the troops. Maddy feels a strong attachment to Mutter, and he acts as a protector to her, providing her with the familial love that she never experienced as a child.
The historic figures written into the story are fantastic. Cheney was given a very respectful characterization, but I think Tatum was even more sensitive to Boris Karloff. Being an avid fan of Karloff’s, I was pleased with the sensitivity and respect he gave to his characterization of one of the genre’s greatest actors. Maddy is especially drawn to him because of the kindness in the man’s eyes, and his physical stature. She was looking for someone to play the creature in Frankenstein, rejecting the director’s demand for the horrific, and instead obtaining someone with a certain sorrow in the eyes, something which Maddy herself comes to grips with along the way in her own life. Tatum clearly did his research on early horror cinema in both Berlin and Hollywood, and combined with his original approach and well-drawn characters, this is a pleasure to read. Recommended.
Contains: physical and psychological abuse, some sex
Reviewed by Lizzy Walker