Sunday, September 9, 2012

"One thinks of the course that people cut through life...

. . . For some, it seems simple. They don't hesitate. They are handsome and intelligent and life opens up to them as the Red Sea opened before Moses. But even into the lives of these people a shadow might come." 
The Church of Dead Girls - by Stephen Dobyns

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What is it like to grow up in a small town? The kind of town where everyone knows everyone and the residents never fear leaving their doors unlocked?

Stephen Dobyns does an excellent job in The Church of Dead Girls, allowing us to see through the windows of a world that is just like that. If you've had the experience of growing up in a small town, as I have, you know how well he's done with this book. The descriptions of the locals, the gossip and the secrets . . . oh yes, the secrets!

The Church of Dead Girls is a novel, I must admit, that I wouldn't have picked up to read on my own. I'd never heard of it until my "Readings in the Genre" course and although I found the Prologue engaging . . .  the first few chapters of the story reminded me so much of my own childhood that I wanted to put the book down and walk away from it as quickly as I'd left town the day I turned eighteen. (Yes, I really did leave ...)

So, did I continue to read it? Yes, I did. But only because it was an assigned reading. It wasn't that the prose was bad. I actually found Dobyn's writing very smooth and I seldom discovered an error in the book (passive voice, repetitive words, etc.). What I had problems with was the style of the story. It didn't work for me.

The issues that I had with it are neither right nor wrong, but grated on me as a reader. 

First: The narrator never has a name (I had to keep calling him 'Mr. High School Biology Teacher Man with Weird Stuff in Jars' in my head, which got rather long), and he's amazingly omniscient. He can recall every single diminutive detail despite his not having been present for, say, a good 95% of the story. Even in common gossip at the local pharmacy or Wegman's, a person doesn't get the opportunity to elicit such juicy fleshed out moments of goings on between two or more people. 

Second: Regardless of Stephen King's "thumbs up" for the novel on the cover and calling it a page turner, I felt like I was eight years old again sitting in the doctor's office among everyone else in my community who had a cough and a cold. These characters were too real to me . . . in that I KNEW them (the spirit of them) and therefore I found them . . . well . . . boring. The druggies, the hippies, the wanna-bes, the professors, the teachers, the pharmacist, the local doctor . . . almost nothing was surprising. Even the narrator's own admission of being a Peeping Tom, taking advantage of a young blind girl's habit of undressing and masturbating in front of her window, was pathetic. And the blind girl? Just because she was blind she was stupid? She had to understand the purpose of windows, and the fact that her house was right next to the narrator's home. Not a moment do I believe the girl didn't have an inkling of what she was doing.

Third: In behavioral/criminal profiling, often it's the Peeping Tom who develops into the full fledged sex offender, sexual sadist, rapist or sexual serial-killer type behaviors. It has to do with fantasy and changing fantasy into reality. It has to do with power and control. I won't spoil the end totally for the reader, but once the narrator made that admission to the readers/his audience, he was prime (behaviorally) to be guilty of so much more. If his knowledge of minuscule shreds of information didn't already make me see him as an unreliable narrator, the things that followed his admission to the Peeping Tom incident made him highly suspect of more.

For information on Peeping Toms and their often 'progressive' criminal development, here's a great webpage: Profiling Rapists. Much of the research in this area is founded on work done by retired FBI agent Roy Hazelwood.

See if this case scenario seems similar to anything you read in the novel:

Yet, I wouldn't lead you to believe that I hated this book. It wasn't bad overall, but I can't rave about it either. It left a condensation of swamp water in my nostrils and a stale beer stench on my clothes. It took me back to the old cemetery where every teen who felt rebellious enough either drank or fucked  and most often did both. I was forced to relive snooty college professors in the larger town, and high school biology teachers with those same despicable formaldehyde jars with who-knows-what pickled  in them for years. A crusty iguana held captive in a tank, cases of dead worms and frogs waiting for dissection and skipping classes to go four wheeling in the two-wheel drive rusty red Volkswagon across the slippery pine-needles of the tree cluttered forest. If this book could do all of that, then it had to be well written indeed.

But I didn't love the book either. There were too many holes, too many easily contrived solutions for why things had happened and the book plodded along like the agonizingly slow assent of mercury in the rectal thermometer that my childhood doctor derived joy from placing. And like when waiting for that liquid metal to rise, I squirmed.

There were the humanistic moments of insight that I found as pleasurable as sunlight that beams down between the dark shadows of oak leaves. Some of my favorite quotes from the prose are these:

"It almost makes me believe in reincarnation, how some people's lives seem a punishment. And what could it be a punishment for if not for some previous sin?" (p. 58)

"All our emotions - - love, hate, envy, greed, pride - - have acceptable public levels, then other levels, private levels where they may move to excess." (p. 120)

"If you could look to the bottom of a human being, what desires would you find? And what desires are concealed beneath my white shirt and bow tie, my civilized veneer?" (p. 384)

And what of the author himself? Dobyns' Wikipedia reference lists all of his writing accomplishments and mentions the following which is cited (curiously) on his Facebook Author Profile as well:

It seems much of Dobyns' life was centered around the sleepy villiage atmosphere, and around education, gender and secret sexuality, lending credibility to the small town 'sound' he so eloquently placed on the pages.  

In conclusion, I can not call the book average. It is much greater than that. Disturbing, maybe, in that it causes a reader who is able to dive beyond words and pages to think of their own darkness, passions and deviant desires. Compelling because it makes us wonder what keeps us in check. 

And what doesn't.


Niedergang 3 by FlexDreams


  1. Interesting quote from Wikipedia. I'm a little surprised, yet relieved, that the Communist professor wasn't idealized in the least, now that I see the connection in misunderstood instructors.

    I agree with your second point entirely. The neighbor wasn't stupid. She had to of known, and if she did doesn't that add something deviant to her character? Being an exhibitionist for a homosexual? I think I can understand the flattery associated with attracting someone not attracted to your gender. This just goes with the theme of the book that everyone has issues they hide.

  2. I think I may have enjoyed reading your blog post more than the novel...

    "But I didn't love the book either. There were too many holes, too many easily contrived solutions for why things had happened and the book plodded along like the agonizingly slow assent of mercury in the rectal thermometer that my childhood doctor derived joy from placing. And like when waiting for that liquid metal to rise, I squirmed."

    You just reminded me of a suppressed childhood memory of having my temperature taken the same way. Thank you! I plan to use it. Doctors don't use rectal thermometers anymore, by the way. If you doctor does, call the police.

  3. Nice post. Good view on small town craziness.

  4. I left my small town at 17, and 17 years later found myself not living there, but working in their library. They don't change. All of the Peyton Place drama stays the same. Dobyns did capture small town life, which was one of the reasons I had such high hopes for this book (that and I really loved the prologue). In the end, it wasn't the tale or the setting that turned me off, it was the telling.

  5. I, too, would like to know what holes you saw, because I didn't see anything.

    Also, there is a lot of talk of head-hopping and I wonder everyone knows what that is, because that doesn't take place in this book. Head-hoping is when you move your POV from one character to another within the same event. So, if he were following him as the events unfolded, there would be head hoping at points.

    But all of this happened, plus a space of time, before he starts telling the story to us. That allows him to have that omniscient POV, much like a historian, who is now just relaying past events to us. So when he goes into those moments he's not a part of, that's not head hopping, that is information he gathered from the people who were there, and he names most of those sources either as people he talks to then or after the events of the book, or as town gossips, so there is a pretty free flow of information in the town.

    If you notice, never once does he ever go into the mind of Sadie or Barry when they are at his house. He may try to interpret body language, but we never get definite emotions or thoughts of either of them when they are at his house.

    1. Will - Okay, I agree that this story was told in flashback - but we get that from the beginning chapter and at no other place. The entire story unfolds as its happening - even to the point the narrator wonders who the killer is (which isn't part of flashback). I think the narration style was awkward. I enjoy Dobyns poetry and I think he had some insightful moments, but overall I think the book didn't deserve the hype.

  6. Cin,

    "It left a condensation of swamp water in my nostrils and a stale beer stench on my clothes." THIS is what should have been on the cover blurb. Loved it!

  7. I agree with Will that there seemed to be no head hopping here. I liked this book, and this was my second go round reading it. It was nice the first time and it was still nice the second time. The style Dobyn's used really worked for me because it took what could have been a tedious story and made it into something that was easy to swallow, even when he was talking about the not so shiny things of the seemingly idyllic small town.

    Great observation about what does and doesn't keep us in check. Isn't it something to see that in these folks and wonder about it in ourselves?

    I've not read the book before having it assigned, but if I had seen it in a bookstore and read the title, I would have picked it up just because dead girls and churches seem pretty creepy. The easy story telling style and the narrator whose name I never really wanted to know (it could be one of his secrets, you know) were an added perk.