Reading The Church of the Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns is like talking to my aunt, a self-confessed town gossip, for hours and hours. You start with the end and most interesting part of the story, “Say, did you hear that some girls died?” And then you move to the middle and finally you get to the beginning that then leads you back to the end. Sound confusing? It isn’t. Despite the chronological leaps this book is utterly fascinating because the focus here is not on murder, which is the bread and butter of so many horror novels, but on the communities reaction to murder.
At first I felt lost in details, long passages where the neighbor’s son, someone who has nothing to do with the central plot, was going to school and what they were studying after they lost their job because they had that DUI a few years back, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could just get their act together so that their grandma could hold her head up at church? I’m oversimplifying here, but this round and about storytelling is a reflection of the entire book. From an intellectual standpoint this would seem exhausting, but it wasn’t. So I had to ask myself, why? I feel it’s because by the end of this book you become a member of the community, and that gossip, which at first felt overwhelming, becomes the nectar that you need to survive. Digging into the sordid details of other people’s private lives is both perverse and delicious in a way that is hard to explain.
And it is this digging that leads us into the central question behind this book: who are we behind closed doors? We start with an ordinary town full of ordinary people, but as the pressure is amplified by the deaths of the young girls we get to see the honest, hard working people of a community deal with the strain. A severe us-and-them mentality develops so that as we learn more about people through gossip each new sordid revelation becomes a flashing light pointing towards their guilt. That is the genius behind this book, not the death that is described by one character as, “very quiet,” but the reaction to these deaths, which is very loud. The community reaction thus becomes the terror here. People are harassed, beaten, and even killed because they stand out in some way. It is these actions that show us that underneath our tissue of civility we are all just tribal animals ready to kill an outsider to preserve our own sense of safety.
I’m not even sure it’s right to call this a horror novel (at least not in the traditional sense). The grim details of murder, which are laid out in the prologue, are presented with the same crisp imagery as the town square. And when something terrible happens it is given the same attention as the backstory of the mayor’s family. These choices, along with lots of passages dealing with community values, would allow this novel to be assigned to any sociology class dealing with the interpersonal relationships within a community under severe strain. I also think it is interesting to note that this novel was written in 1997, four years before our American community faced a similar us-versus-them breakdown. If anything, our post 9-11 reaction only highlights the timelessness of this book and holds it up as a truly great novel that lifts the veil from our self-proclaimed civility and shows us the animal underneath.