Stephen Dobyns’s The Church of Dead Girls is certainly a wild ride, and one that will likely never be forgotten by its readers. Child molestation, kidnapping, rape, murder, and so forth are all topics in this one novel. For many readers, I feel that this novel can be a bit too much; for others, it provides an interesting insight into a town, its citizens, and what “normal” people will do when faced with a prolonged crisis where a criminal is hiding amongst them.
There are quite a few characters in Dobyns’s novel, and it takes a while to keep track of them. I don’t consider this a negative, however, as the town feels lively with a large number of characters. The reader isn’t thrown into just one perspective, but several. What I think having so many does also is creates an identity for Aurelius–the town in which the novel is set–therefore setting the town itself up as a character. The town, as a whole, is relatively peaceful until a woman is found dead and missing her left hand. That ‘s not to say there hadn’t been problems in the town before, but nothing like this. Various characters are suspected of the murder, but nobody is found guilty. The town becomes a bit suspicious, but it holds its composure. But this all changes once the young girls start to disappear, and this is where the novel becomes particularly interesting.
Neighbors against neighbors, brother against brother literally, as the town grows fearful about the murderer on the loose. People who treated one another with respect no longer do so. But the group of people who is treated the worst is composed of the “other,” that is, anybody that sticks out, doesn’t “fit” in with everybody else, those who won’t conform, or those who are just a little different. Discrimination like this sets the mentality on the town on a precarious position. First, the Marxist group led by an Algerian born college professor is targeted with questions and suspicions about the disappearance of Sharon, the first girl. In the past, these people may not have been treated exactly the same as the majority of the citizens, but they weren’t persecuted or anything like that. All people needed was one inciting incident to shift the tolerance to blame. People fear the “other,” and it only takes a small match to set off a barrel of gunpowder.
As more girls disappear, the citizens start looking at anybody that they consider the “other.” Eventually, the gay population soon becomes a target. These people don’t fit the so-called mold of the ordinary citizen and the town suspects that the murderer won’t be someone that fits that mold entirely. Several homosexuals are taken into the police station to be questioned all because, as the narrator of the novel points out, are gay. These people aren’t Marxists, aren’t troublemakers, or anything that should cause suspicion. The town includes them as people of interest simply because they constitute the “other” of the town.
But the “other” soon includes the “normal” people in town and people turn on a suspect at the end of the novel, destroying his house, all because they had anger to release, which is what the narrator feels happened.
Overall, The Church of the Dead Girls is a fascinating look into the psyche of a town as a whole, and what happens when there is a prolonged exposure to fear. Every culture has people who fear the “other,” and if this fear didn’t exist, xenophobia would never have become a word. But how far will people go to find a criminal. Who do you suspect first? Is it your neighbor who you grab a drink with at the bar or the kid down the street with a wallet chain that hangs to his knee and the long pink spikes he made with his hair? As one character says in the novel, “The character of the present could be judged by its respect for the past.” Despite the friendliness shown to neighbors and the tolerance for dissident groups, once a crisis came about, all that was forgotten and the respect once held in the past is gone, perhaps forever. This is what it seems the novel investigates in my opinion, and I find it intriguing.