March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Audiobooks: Penn reads Dylan! Spacek reads King!

As a longtime audiobook nerd, I’ve become stubbornly attached to the voices of the great professional narrators, anonymous journeymen actors like Scott Brick, George Guidall, Ron McLarty, and Frank Muller, who know how to downplay their personalities in service of an author’s vision. But in the last few years, Hollywood megapowers like Julia Roberts and Matt Damon have spent time in the recording booth. What, if anything, does a famous voice add to a listener’s experience? A survey of some recent celebrity-read audiobooks leads me to the conclusion that the biggest impact may be on sales, not quality. Stars may not be as versatile as the best professional narrators (I wouldn’t want to hear Jennifer Aniston narrate Ulysses), but when matched with the right material, they do excellent work.

Twenty-nine years after the skinny, freckled young actress Sissy Spacek donned a white prom gown for the title role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, she delivers a new recording of Stephen King’s surprisingly delicate and sensitive first novel. Spacek does a cool, precise reading of this archetypal tale of the misfit adolescent, ashamed of her body and tormented by her peers. But Carrie has become a victim of its own success: Nearly everyone already knows the story. From the chilling opening lines, you await the iconic prom-night bloodbath with a dread that’s been drained of all suspense.

Tess Gerritsen’s latest thriller, Body Double, doesn’t have that problem. (Nor, I am guessing, will it ever.) Artistically, this 2004 page-turner can’t measure up to King’s work, but scary it certainly is. (Listening to a horror story on a headset can frighten the bejesus out of you.) In a throaty, sexy alto, Anne Heche narrates this fast-paced, abridged tale of an especially odious serial killer who slaughters pregnant women. Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, Gerritsen’s recurring heroine, discovers a personal — and perhaps biological — connection to the murderer. Heche’s attempt to vary her intonation and accent for different characters may seem hammy at first, but it helps these turgid creations and their wooden emotions come alive. As for the abridgment, I barely noticed anything was missing.

No one, however, should have been allowed to gut Bob Dylan’s wonderful, freewheeling 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Not even if it meant snaring Sean Penn as a reader. Yes, Penn narrates scraps of this inimitable book in a muscular deadpan that matches Dylan’s plain-talking prose perfectly. But what was already a loose, episodic book becomes choppy and almost dissociative. Terrific scenes, like Dylan’s boozy evening with U2’s Bono, have been drastically truncated. Though it has been nominated for an Audie award this year, almost certainly due to Penn’s strong narration, the abridgment is an abomination.

Of all the recent celebrity-narrated audiobooks, by far the happiest marriage of word and voice is the mighty Sir Ian McKellen’s rendition of Patrick McGrath’s 1997 gothic novel, Asylum, recorded here in all its leisurely, unabridged glory. Taking on the persona of an oh-so-reasonable (or is he?) elderly British psychiatrist, McKellen recounts the case history of an asylum doctor’s wife, the gorgeous Stella Raphael, who falls helplessly in love with dangerous mental patient Edgar Stark. Stark murdered and beheaded his wife, but this doesn’t stop Stella from running away with him. Just when you think McGrath has given the plot its final, wicked twist, you come to another. And then another. McKellen has a marvelous voice, but he has something even more important in producing a good audiobook: terrific material.

Carrie, Body: B ; Chronicles: B-; Asylum: A

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