The Church of Dead Girls

Right off the bat, I need to tell you that there is a spoiler alert on this article. I will not be holding any thing back when I discuss this harrowing read by Stephen Dobyns. I almost never divulge important plot points or the ending–but the subject of the book, it’s theme, deserves some delving into, and I can’t do that if restrained by worrying about giving too much away. So, if you intend to read this at some point, please don’t continue with the article. Believe me, it is worth reading.

This is a title I’ve had around for over a decade–just sitting on various shelves, a signed hardcover, and a trade paperback. As I was going through my hoards of books I came to it and was about to shove it into my ‘library’ or ‘mother’s hairdresser’ give away box, when I re-read the synopsis, and realized why I had kept it all this time. A small town in upstate NY around the Syracuse area has been a Ozzie and Harriet world since any one can remember. Sunny friends, pillars of the community, nice schools, a quiet mediocre college combine to create a lazy lovely place, where the problems of the rest of the country and world seem distant. Within this cosy place, a young teenager vanishes, practically before her mother’s eyes. One minute she sees her daughter riding her bike, the next, she’s no longer there, her bike found abandoned. This is when the true measure of the town is unraveled. Suspicion among a group of people can become poisonous very quickly.The classic Twilight Zone episode —There Are Monsters on Main Street–captures how ordinary neighbors can turn on each other. In Stephen Dobyns’ engrossing novel, the shift of attitudes is subtler than the short TV show. First, the townspeople can’t believe the girl is missing. As time crawls along, they begin to shun outsiders, people who don’t belong there. Next, the college is eyed, in particular a socialist professor who holds meeting with students to discuss world order. Who is more likely to be a kidnapper, than a commie rabble-rouser. Of which he is neither, but once the second girl disappears much like the first, no one is rational enough to understand the difference.

Mr. Dobyns is muted and careful in his depiction of typical small town suspicion. These are decent people who lose all sense of security as their careful world starts showing dangerous imperfections. Another suspected person is a young man whose mother was brutally murdered during his childhood  and who has recently returned to the town, with no one understanding why.  He isn’t wanted. He’s a reminder of a rare act of violence, of a distasteful occurrence, and he’s not exactly warm and cuddly. He confronts his high school bully, becomes part of the socialist group, and befriends a motherless daughter of the town newspaper owner  and editor. The entire book is narrated by a friend of both the editor, his daughter, and the prodigal son. He teaches high school science, and we find as we follow his story, that he’s gay. This fact, plus his close friendship with the 13 year old newspaper’s daughter, puts him on the suspect list, and he is questioned by a self appointed vigilante group. They don’t see themselves in that light but much like the Salem witch trials they are finding demons in broad daylight.  Anyone who is ‘different’ is suspect, because naturally, no long time resident and ‘normal’ townsperson could possibly be responsible for the horror.

By the time the third girl is gone, trust has dissipated. Violence takes control, and a small vicious band of men, led by the town bully, attack the socialist’s car, a symbol to them of his arrogance. Mob mentality takes hold when he comes out demanding they stop destroying his property, swinging a baseball bat. He is brutally hit again and again and left in the newly falling snow, to die of head wounds or hyperthermia, doesn’t matter much which, the fact is they killed him–and he, of course, has done nothing.

When the true perpetrator is discovered and found to be a regular respected member of the community, who in trying to escape his demons and the law, severs his hand as his brother shoots him in the back, the townspeople are too stunned to take it all in. Some refuse to comprehend anything and still defend those who destroyed property of a suspect and look askance at the brother who pulled the trigger, even though what he did was necessary. People directly involved had to move on–and that meant moving away from the source of their contamination. The narrator writes:

“The suspicion didn’t just go away. It just slipped back to wherever it hid. I had the feeling it would stay with us always, as if we would never be able to look at one another again except through its filter, a colored lens of suspicion. ”

In a run of the mill novel, the book would end on that note-‘here is the lesson you all must learn’. But Dobyns’ chilling final pages take the lesson to another level. The narrator discusses in his own mind how we are all sexual beings, and who can say they don’t have similar desires to the murderer?

“What desires do these people push down inside them? Is it good to pretend we don’t have those feelings?”  The narrator goes on, telling about the newest acquisition to the scientific oddities he sometimes displays for students.

“The murderer’s hand is now among them, turning slightly darker in its jar of formaldehyde. It’s in the center, in the place of honor between the fetal pig and the human fetus. For me it’s a reminder of what is always there, of the longings that within people, the longings we hide within ourselves. I look at the hand swimming in its liquid I think of it as my private teacher. My own academy. It instructs me. By now the right hand and body have rotted away  but the left hand is safe”—“Sometimes I’m sorry I can’t show it to my classes; it makes everything so clear. I try to think what those fingers felt and I scare myself: the necks of the three girls, their tenderness.”

The narrator leaves us with an uneasy sense of what may come, of how a fairly decent individual could descend into an unrecognizable monster. And a question–are any of us safe from the darker aspects of ourselves?