By David Nilsen
Bradford Tatum’s debut novel is ninety percent of a great book. I’m not docking it because it lacks the magic to push it over the top, or because Tatum’s vision or execution aren’t quite up to the task; it displays more than enough genius to earn it that designation. I’m docking it because Tatum makes a few decisions–well, one decision, really, with several splintering consequences–that betray his main character, and the essential brilliance of his creation. I haven’t been so angry at a novelist in a long time as I was when I finished Only the Dead Know Burbank, and I wouldn’t have been so angry if the book didn’t display so much damn potential. What’s especially maddening is that these choices were so thoroughly unnecessary to the book’s narrative.
The book begins in a rural German village at the dawn of the twentieth century. A young girl, the daughter of a witch, is raised by her father and cruel stepmother after her mom leaves. When the girl is a teen, the mother returns and absconds with the child. They begin a proud but hardscrabble existence, the mother selling her body to fund their survival. Eventually, the Spanish Flu epidemic reaches their corner of the world, and the girl (who by this point is going by Maddy, though she was unnamed at birth) is not spared. But it’s not the end of her.
When Maddy awakes from her nightmare battle with this disease that killed millions, she is changed. I’ll leave it to readers to discover the exact nature of this change for themselves, but suffice it to say she now has a keen insight into the primal fears that have tormented and thrilled us since we first became aware of our own mortality eons ago. She takes up with a traveling performer, and graduates soon to the German filmmaking industry, where her preternatural understanding of horror allows her to anticipate and manipulate the revulsion and fascination of her audience. From there, it’s just a sea voyage to Hollywood, where her morbid expertise would be quite welcome to Universal’s intentions to pack theaters with horror fans, were she not a young woman. She must fight for every scrap of respect she can get.
The cameras held instant fascination for me. It was the sound of tiny galloping horses, tethered to a moment, pulling it into eternity.
The cinema history aspects of this narrative will be tantalizing to film lovers. Tatum weaves in legends of the screen such as Lon Chaney, James Whale, Tod Browning, Boris Karloff, and many others, and provides fascinating (if wholly invented) mythological origin stories for many of the most iconic horror films of American cinema. Tatum keeps Maddy in the shadows and margins of these films, pulling invisible strings in the background, working magic she almost never receives the credit for. The result is wondrous, haunting, devastating.
Tatum betrays Maddy in a predictable, pathetic, and revolting way. I can’t give specifics here, but I’ll say that part of her origin story involves a trope that is all too common for Strong Female Characters, because Hollywood writers (Bradford Tatum is an actor and screenwriter) can’t think of any other way to create women who are resilient, angry, or motivated.
You know what? No. I’m giving the spoilers. If you don’t want to read them, stop here. If you do, continue after the line breaks.
Maddy gets raped. Repeatedly. By the very man who has given her both a passion for film and the knowledge she needs to make movies. He continues to coach her for years, as he continues to violate her, and she owes most of her expertise to him. So not only do we have yet another remarkable female character given the most lazy origin story imaginable, but even her gifted understanding of how to achieve cinematic horror and evoke terror from her audience is taken away as something she has figured out herself and is instead largely credited to her rapist. Go to hell, Bradford Tatum.
Rape is a thing that happens (at a staggering rate of occurrence, in fact). As a thing that happens, it is a thing that should be written about. But it must be written about honestly and carefully, not as something that provides an extra “edge” to a female character an author feels the need to rough up and toughen up. Maddy has been through hell already. She has everything she needs to have the edge, the ache, the fear, the loneliness she needs in order to be the mastermind behind the twentieth century horror genre, be it German Expressionism or early Hollywood horror. And since her peculiar and marvelous understanding of fear and horror are the entire fucking point of the novel, taking that away is especially egregious.
I’m so frustrated by this betrayal of an otherwise fantastic character and story, especially because of how very unnecessary it is. From a character-development standpoint, there is no need for this. She has everything she needs. She doesn’t need to be raped to understand revulsion, or to feel displaced from her own body, or to keenly understand mortal fear. She already has all that because of narrative work Tatum does before this point. But no, let’s remove the brilliance and strength innate to her character and deliver it into the hands of a rapist so we can more easily accept a young woman emerging as an expert in a field dominated at the time (and still) by dudes. Tatum commits the very crime he spends so much of his novel skillfully making his audience upset about on Maddy’s behalf as male directors and studio heads refuse to give her credit (or a director’s contract). These characters don’t believe a young woman could possibly have what it takes on her own. And, sadly, neither does Bradford Tatum. It is so, so disappointing, because if this one aspect of the novel were removed, it would be a fantastic and haunting work. If he was going to do something this boneheaded, and his editors weren’t going to call bullshit on such a predictable and character-betraying decision, they at least should have done so for how superfluous this narrative choice was. You could literally lift this aspect of the narrative off the page like a dirty bed sheet and lose nothing.
I will read this book again at some point. So much of it is devastatingly beautiful, especially for a lover of classic film such as myself. And when I do, I will feel the same sadness and anger at Bradford Tatum for taking such a wonderful idea, one he has the writing chops to handle, and double-crossing this character he created, stripping her of the skill and drive and knowledge she deserved. I would rather the book has actually been bad. It would have made the disappointment easier.
Only the Dead Know Burbank is available now at GPL.