Monday, September 10, 2012

The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns

True story.

I grind out the books for and knock out the blogs for this way in advance. I like to have something ready to go, I like to get a thought on paper early and let it percolate for awhile and I hate rushing through things at the last minute. I carry my books with me where ever I go, but when you're studying horror fiction you're going to get a lot of strange looks over your reading material.

Anyway, midway through the book, I decided to take in a burlesque show from the fine people at D20 Burlesque for their WTF Japan anime-themed costumed night. I had bought the tickets well in advance but I wasn't able to convince anyone else to go, my personal life turned into a hot mess, and I found myself in the front row seat, alone, in a bad mood, and with a bunch of naked girls wondering what kind of aspiring serial killer brings a copy of The Church of Dead Girls to a burlesque show. 

Clever, clever me...

Anyway, I was midway through The Church of Dead Girls and I wasn't really feeling it. Dobyns is a really good writer, but the framing device of having a withdrawn, intellectual townsperson narrate it drained any sense of tension from the story. I see why Stephen King liked it, as his blurb is prominent on the cover. King does the folksy narrator unspooling a yarn very well, but this story takes the voice of an uptight closet case middle school teacher and therefore feels cold. Midway through the book, I felt like I was reading a wikipedia page summarizing events rather than actually engaging in the storyline.

It doesn't help that the narrator has no way of knowing some of the details in the story while being maddeningly coy with others ("Who's the 'professional man'?" "I'm not telling yoooooooouuuu."). I kept waiting for the big tweest to be revealed where the narrator was the killer (in retrospect, he probably was) or the narrator was secretly dead or something. It was an odd mix of omniscient and focused narrative.

It strikes me that this is an interesting selection for my Psychos In Literature course. We don't discover who the killer is until the end of the book, when an otherwise lucid major character starts speaking in psycho-child-religious speak. Instead this story is about a town tearing itself apart out of fear of the predators inside their midst.

For all the complaints I had about the way the story is written, I have to admit it's an absolutely engrossing tale. I've read a million zillion stories about the big scary wolf bringing chaos to the sleepy little bedroom community of sheep but I rarely see a serial killer story where the serial killer is almost an afterthought. Really, this novel is more of a "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" type of story, where the real enemy is fear and mistrust. You see this a lot in horror fiction but it's usually more garish and overt. I like the subtlety and slow-burn of this book.

I felt a tremendous degree of sympathy for the town scapegoat, the mysterious college study group Inquiries Into The Right. Yeah, most of the people in the group sound like assholes, but they don't seem that far off from the kind of radicals that were common in San Francisco State University: factually correct in the grand scheme of things, but so socially maladjusted and myopic that they are unlikable. If the idea behind this nice small town is that it only works because no one upsets the apple cart then it's easy to figure out why the town singles them out.

It doesn't help that some of their members plant fake bombs and ransack cemetaries.

Like all good towns-with-a-secret, this place has a dark past, specifically the murder of the....god, I feel terrible for thinking this, because for all my pro-sex/pro-feminist empowerment sensibilities, my first thought was "...murder of the town bike."

I don't like what that says about me. 

The book is obviously about the secrets we all keep and how they conflict with our public persona. Horror tales are full of towns like these, where every house has an adulterer or a pedophile or a hypocrite or a pervert or something. I can't help but feel like this sort of outlook is something people who grew up in small towns develop after dealing with a bunch of two-faced hypocrisy. I didn't grow up in a small town and I'm accustomed to being surrounded by strangers. I assume that everyone is disgusting behind closed doors. The only difference is that no one else gives a shit here.   


Michelle R. Lane said...

I really like the fact that although there are definite problems with the novel, you still end up enjoy reading it.

I did question the narrator. A lot. But, I also liked the idea of him snooping around, eaves-dropping, and peeping in windows. Sure, he knew entirely too much information to be realistic, but I enjoyed his often snarky perspective.

Don't feel bad about reading the Church of dead Girls at a burlesque show. I used to read Rosemary's Baby on the bus when I was pregnant with my son.

R. D. DeMoss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R. D. DeMoss said...

I felt like I was reading a Wikipedia summary, too. This book seems to be loaded with telling so that it can fit in all the characters, their neuroses, and their histories into the story.

I had problems with some of the information the narrator knew. He tries to explain and justify how he gained such knowledge, but in the end, there's several things he wouldn't know. but Oh well, I guess.

Dwight A. Jolivette said...

You make some excellent points. Maybe it's because you have more patience than I do. I think it may be that point that irked me the most. The book starts with a speed and intensity that drives the reader forward then suddenly slams on the brakes. It's like a comic taking you all the way to a punchline then telling you he has to go back to the beginning to give the joke context.

Christopher Shearer said...

Thought the narrator would be the killer too. I, however, liked this book.

Querus Abuttu said...

I still think the narrator was the killer. I think that's why he knew so much. I think he preyed on the fact that the pharmacist was nuts. That's why he collected the hand at the end. The ultimate trophy. But what do I know?

Great posting, Creature-Man. You've got a great blogging voice. Rings introspectively deep and true. Keep at it. And even though I grew up in a small town, "...riding the town bike," (?) THAT was a new one to me. Had to read it three times before I understood. An exchange with you can be so educational. :) Stay real.

Livewyr said...

I read your comment on GriffinGate about the narrator being the killer. My two critique partners are in agreement on something - holy cow! That gives it a lot of credence, but I'm still not seeing it. And maybe this says something about me - I agree that taking the trophy at the end was creepy - don't get me wrong - but it wasn't Ed Gein creepy. It was emotionally disturbed murderabilia creepy to me.

Creature said...

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's not it myself. People keep referencing that we all "missed something" and it's been driving me nuts.