The Church of Dead Girls, by Stephen Dobyns

I find myself, yet again, of being able to appreciate the way a book is written while still disliking the book.

The good stuff – the small town in upstate New York, Aurelius, is brilliantly portrayed as a cauldron of fear, doubt and paranoia as three teenaged girls disappear over the course of a few months. The discovery of their bodies, in the prologue, shows us the what and where, but not the who or why. So, with the so-called “important stuff” – the bodies’ discovery – out of the way right at the start, the author then takes us through the whole story. From the beginning. Because the real horror in this story is not the dead girls, dead-girls

but the cataclysmic way the town disintegrates once the townsfolk realize there’s a killer among them.

The careful, even loving, attention that Dobyns lavishes on his large cast of characters reminded me of how Stephen King populates a story, and so it didn’t bother me. I liked, too, how the author took his time to show us the town’s decline into vigilantism and madness once the killings/disappearances started. Dobyns treats us to his acutely perceptive vision of a town on the edge in a way that is both realistic and chilling. The self-appointed “police helpers” vigilante group was especially creepy, and totally believable.

My main gripe with this story is, once again, the unreliable first person narrator. This narrator – who is sort of revealed very near the goddamned end of the story – as a nameless, gay, male high school biology teacher, knows things about the characters and events in this story that only an omniscient, third-person narrator would know.

But what do I know?

I’ll tell you what I know. I know that on page 242, Chapter Friggin’ 30, the book falls into a limited omniscient POV for awhile, and then slips into an omniscient POV for awhile, and then back into the first person for some chapters. This is kind of the problem with slow, cerebral “thrillers” like this – not only do they encourage you to slow down and think, you actually do just that. And that’s when you notice stuff like this. I have to say, though; even before I saw the POV shift, I was getting increasingly annoyed with this mystery narrator – who the hell is this person, and when am I going to meet him/her?

Despite this kind of trivial stuff, the story is top-notch. It is a different kind of horror story that still manages to include sympathetic victims, a crazy serial killer, and a lot of suspense and misdirection.

It also has a great title. It’s just not the kind of horror story I was expecting or hoping for.

Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997. Print.

6 thoughts on “The Church of Dead Girls, by Stephen Dobyns”

  1. Hi Gwen,

    I had the exact same thoughts after finishing this book. The nameless narrator drove me nuts! I was expecting some kind of twist ending where the narrator was the murderer, and was disappointed when it was Donald. I mean, I didn’t really suspect him until the end, but he just wasn’t the most exciting of choices for me. I also agree that this was definitely well-written, and I think it’s a good read for anyone experimenting with thrillers like I am, but I found more of what I don’t want to do than what I do. For example, loads of exposition bores me, I want to name my narrator, and I don’t like being forced to read in between the lines.


  2. Wow, it’s like you and I wrote the same blog post in our own styles. I know you commented on mine and agreed, and yep, your first sentence says it all. I really did appreciate the book even though I did not like it because it was such a great tale of a small town. Maybe we’re growing up, Gwen…maybe we really are learning stuff! Proud of us. 🙂

    But I really was hoping for a good horror tale with the title and the first chapter. Man it could have gone so differently


  3. I know, right? Donald the serial killer was a big let-down. I was also mystified by the sheer volume of words Dobyns devoted to that Marxist study group at the college, and its very UN-charismatic teacher. Not sure what that was all about, except to give the disintegrating townsfolk its first victim.


  4. Gwen,

    I agree the POV shift was completely annoying. Up until that, I didn’t have a problem with the narrator, that is until he started revealing things about himself but not his name.

    I also found myself liking the way the town was built and the detail put into the setting and characters within it. It did make it more real and the reactions of the townspeople more plausible.


  5. Gwen, I’m a big fan of unreliable narrator and this one annoyed the hell out of me. Hooray, we agree! This narrator no one of significance and yet everyone at the same time. In first person, I want the story tainted with the narrator’s perspective. I didn’t get that in this book. I think readers need to get to know the narrator by the way they see the world, this narrator didn’t even give us his name. The POV shifts were a distraction, among other issues I had with the book.


  6. Gwen, I guess I stand alone on this, because I’ve seen complaints about it everywhere, but I kind of like the idea that we never got the narrator’s name. For me, it added to the effect that I believe Dobyns was trying to create, which was that we never really know who are neighbors might be. It also made me suspect him as the murderer all the more because he was being so shady with his embalmed animals and human parts, and a true murderer would not want his name revealed. Considering how many people hated this, though, I’m thinking this was more of a personal preference.


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