The Church of Dead Girls: “The character of the present could be judged by its respect for the past”

the-church-of-dead-girls-a-novelStephen 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.

Psycho by Robert Bloch–“I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times”

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is a classic. It is, perhaps, one of the most well written novels about a psychopath with a twist that would surprise most readers if the novel and film adaptation weren’t so well known. Having previously read this novel, I was able to look deeper during this reading and study how Bloch managed to convince the reader that Norman and Norma Bates were two separate characters, despite Norma having been dead for twenty years in the novel. Considering my thesis novel for my MFA follows a serial killer, it’s interesting to see how I can take what I learned during my reading of Psycho, and use it to create my own psychopath.

Robert Bloch doesn’t necessarily lie to the reader to convince him or her that Norman’s mother is alive. Rather, he allows Norman to convince the reader through his psychosis. In fact, Bloch gives hints through the entire story that Norman and Norma are one in the same. For instance, Bloch hints that Mother is gone when Norman is searching for his mother after “she” killed Mary. He enters her room and finds that “nothing had changed in Mother’s room; nothing ever changed. But Mother was gone” (Bloch 52). The reader assumes that Mother is not in the room because she is somewhere else, but in reality she is gone from life entirely. This also shows how Norman subconsciously realizes that his mother is dead, but he convinces himself–or rather his reality is skewed in a way–that his mother is just somewhere else. Bloch effectively deceives the reader by presenting a character that is himself deceived. Furthermore, when Norman tell his mother that she would be in an asylum for the criminally insane without him, she says, “Yes, Norman, I suppose you’re right. That’s where I’d probably be. But I wouldn’t be there alone” (116). I found this an excellent hint at Norman’s character without giving up so much that the reader will figure out what is actually happening in the story at this point. And again, perhaps one of the biggest hints Bloch gives to the perceptive reader is when Norman speaks to his mother about Arbogast:

“Mother–if you just talked to him for a minute, told him you don’t know anything–he’d go away then.”

“But he’d come back. Forty thousand dollars, that’s a lot of money. Why didn’t you tell me about it?” (106).

With Mother having been in the house while Arbogast spoke to Norman, it is impossible for her to know about the forty thousand dollars at all. She asks why he didn’t tell her about it, but there’s no way she could have known he didn’t tell her unless they were the same person.

Norman realizes, at times, that he might be a little crazy and explicitly says so in the novel. For instance, he tells Mary, “I was worse than [mother] could ever be. I was ten times crazier, if that’s the word you want to use. . . . I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times” (36). Norman is even described as being, at times, “mature enough to understand that he might even be the victim of a mild form of schizophrenia, most likely some form of borderline neurosis” (93). Norman becomes an authentic character through this characterization. While the average person suffering from some sort of psychosis doesn’t realize that they are crazy, that doesn’t mean many of them don’t question they are. And with Norman’s quick dismissal, he becomes a true to life psychotic.

Although Psycho was first published in 1959 doesn’t mean it has aged so much that it can’t be learned from. The characters, for the most part, are convincing, and Norman is a fascinating character to study. If the twist wasn’t so ingrained into pop culture, it would still shock most readers. One of the most interesting techniques Bloch used for the novel was how he deceives the reader by showing a deceived character. The way Norman is written is so well done that the novel will continue to be long-lasting.

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