Book Review: Only the Dead Know Burbank by Bradford Tatum

A literary display of the origins of horror in film, harkening back to terrors from our past.
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Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera: all members of the classic horror era that continues to haunt and inspire film to this day. In his novel Only the Dead Know Burbank, Bradford Tatum explains a history in which all of these were inspired by one little girl.

The story is a first-person account tracing the short life and long afterlife of a Bavarian girl who lurks in the shadows of history and serves as something of a midwife, if not true mother, of the horror cinematic genre. Tatum is rich in his telling of setting, first illustrating the narrator’s village as practically medieval in its distance from the civilized world and its many superstitions. The narrator’s mother takes her out of the countryside to the dawn of the twentieth century, showing the inheritance of modern horror from the terrors of our collective past.

Only the Dead Know Burbank tells a whole new age of shock with World War I haunting the background with wounded veterans out of work and the nightmare of the Spanish Flu in the forefront as the narrator herself succumbs to the creeping illness. Fortunately, her mother knows ways of resisting death from the fever, not surviving exactly, but continuing to haunt the world as a cold, walking corpse. The narrator will never age, but her mind is worn well beyond even her many years.

The treatment of horror in Only the Dead Know Burbank is practically in the vein of magical realism. Being undead or a monster comes in many forms, and the practical-minded world around the narrator takes them all in stride. There is not much that seems to truly scare, but the narrator serves as a muse of nightmares, molding the nebulous form of horror to be placed right in front of people at the movies.

In addition to its fun storytelling, Only the Dead Know Burbank is rich with nuggets from historical cinema, such as the first appearance of Lon Chaney sitting in the studio cafeteria, sketching away dressed as the stagehand he had been before making it big. More relics from the ancient days of film appear, such as Chaney, Jr., “Uncle Carl” presiding over the city-within-a-city at Universal, and Boris “Billy” Karloff.

Tatum’s own experience with film is clear both in the cerebral history and in the pounding heart. The story shows the power of film as it mesmerizes and terrorizes the audience. Before the narrator journeys to Hollywood, we see film’s own roots in storytelling, art, theater, and prostitution, even a clip of clock-making as its own performance piece. Behind the scenes, we get a peek into the continuous power-struggle in directing, in working with a studio, and editing, where the narrator’s careful hand in the shadows can make just a few cuts of celluloid transform a forgettable silent movie into the to-this-day chilling Phantom of the Opera.

Only the Dead Know Burbank is a must-read for fans of early horror film. The language is poetic, focusing on only a few sensations or descriptions at a time and giving the reader the sensation of living out a dream or, perhaps, walking through the flickering reels into the world of movies themselves.

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