Posted on February 14, 2007 by Flames
Rooted in an alternate history, The Burning ratchets up the supernatural, tones down the reality, and makes good use of graphic violence and sex to shock the reader. In many ways, The Burning is the spiritual successor to the American slasher movie in literature — and it works! As a piece of purely tongue-in-cheek entertainment The Burning delivers:
A crazed mass murderer, a nationwide massacre, a conspiratorial Presidential coverup, ghost trains, and armies of undead rising from the grave — what’s not to love, right?
The bad news is that this sensational approach to the subject matter of The Burning is a double-edged sword that simultaneously works in favor of popcorn entertainment and against serious social commentary. In regard to social commentary, The Burning fails to clear some major hurdles.
The central premise of The Burning is that a single evil man was responsible for the very public persecution and murder of Chinese immigrants nationwide in the late 1800s, that President Grant ordered a cover up of this man’s mass murder of several thousand Chinese railroad workers, and that this cover-up was successful — so successful that none of this (e.g., the man’s lifelong pursuit of killing Chinese immigrants or the aforementioned massacre) ever made it into a single history book or public record anywhere. Add to this multiple mass graves of Chinese laborers hidden beneath the streets of American cities in the early 1900s and an already thin premise is stretched to the breaking point, insofar as suspension of disbelief where historical accuracy is concerned.
While racism is no doubt a serious topic that merits similarly serious discussion, addressing it through a lense of vengeful zombies, spectral Asian succubi, and FBI agents tasked to combat supernatural menace is. . . ah. . . a mistake. Exaggerating a serious topic for dramatic effect is the final nail in coffin where social commentary and suspension of disbelief are concerned. The topic is still there, though it has been buried by overt fantasy in such a manner as to have been defanged entirely. The focus of the story is no longer the horror of racism, but a strange “What If” venture into pure fantasy with racism used as window dressing. Again, as simple entertainment this works fine — as social commentary, however, it falls completely flat.
The only other notable pitfalls of The Burning are far less problematic, though still worth mentioning. . .
First, the four primary protagonists are each given an entire introductory chapter of their own (another protagonist, an FBI agent, is introduced later). These chapters do little to move the plot forward, of course, but worse — they do little to develop the characters past some cliche stereotypes (e.g., the confused college freshman, the battered wife determined to rebuild her life, the college drop-out trying to find himself, etc). If I hadn’t been tasked with reviewing The Burning, I probably would have set it down after the third chapter. I’m glad that I didn’t, as I would have missed the fun that follows, though the temptation was definitely there. If you buy The Burning, be aware that it starts slow — like the spectral locomotives that it showcases, the novel takes a while to build up steam.
Second, there is a principle plot device (black fungus of supernatural origin) that the author spends no time trying to obscure. That is, this fungus is obviously a writer’s tool, and a blunt one at that. There is no explanation of what this fungus is or why it behaves as it does, rather, it is unceremoniously used to tie other plot elements together in transparent fashion. It’s simply not handled very well and, in all honesty, I think that the story would have been much stronger without it.
The three aforementioned pitfalls aside, The Burning has a lot going for it — like “slasher” movies, the currency of The Burning is indisputably shock factor and the author knows it. Graphic violence (and, to a lesser degree, sex) are used to great effect, conjuring forth disturbing mental images. Chapters and scenes are often cut on the verge of some horrible event or immediately following one, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat. It’s a great recipe for fun and, as long as you don’t dwell too long on the historical inaccuracies and awkward attempts at social commentary, that’s exactly what you’ll get out of it — non-committal, spine-tingling, fun. On the other hand, if you try to take The Burning too seriously, you’ll soon find your suspension of disbelief in as many pieces as the dismembered bodies that turn up in the novel.
Overall, I found The Burning to be gratifying insofar as entertainment value is concerned. If you like a good thrill that doesn’t require deep emotional investment, then you could do far worse than to pick up this Bentley Little novel. If you’re looking for a complex character study or plausible plot, you’ll want to skip this one.
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove
Look for Bentley Little at the Flames Rising eBook Shop.