In The Church of Dead Girls, Stephen Dobyns managed to solidify one fact: the horror to be found in what many term “normalcy” is often the scariest kind to face. On the first page of the prologue, we know something terrible has happened. The author gives thorough details on the crime scene, but the one that stands out the most is the reflectivity and glitter of the attic where the bodies were found. The scene brings to mind decay or death covered by glitter and reflected as the illusion of beauty.
The author’s title reminds me of the scene, and on a larger scale, the town of Aurelius. The very name is a derivative of the feminine name Aurelia, which means golden. A church is a place of worship, or the shiny veneer that covers the town; and, underneath the covering is dark as death and the dead girls. There is also a nod to the death of that worship of how things look on the outside, the death of innocents of sorts. Where the girls who were murdered were true innocents, the townspeople were not.
The title also sets the somber tone of the novel and is interesting in that it foreshadows the lives of the townspeople of Aurelius who are, as Chihani stated in the book, “They are asleep. This is the condition they prefer…indeed, there is no better invitation to the frightful than ignorance—that is, sleep” (Dobyns, 32). Through the narrator of the story, we find that Aurelius is a small town, a place where some residents moved to from larger cities. We expect that the big city nuisances that face town dwellers would not be a danger to people who live in small Aurelia. I thought it very important that the town was small but not tiny. Tiny would have given the impression of isolated or possibly populated by people who were beyond ignorant and were just plain hicks. Aurelia was small enough to be personal and yet large enough to be home to numerous intellectuals (even if only in title) and a college.
The narrator backs us into an explanation of the sequence of events that lead to the discovery of the bodies and as the story unfolds, the shine comes off Aurelius and its residents. The suspicion that builds as the murderer is slowly uncovered reveals true ugliness within the town folk, as the investigation turns into a modern day witch hunt. The story is a compelling social commentary on the marginalization of certain groups within our society. Each of the characters who were actually murdered were a part of an “other” group”: Janice was a loose woman, who was looked down on because of her free sexuality, Chihani was of foreign birth, and the member of a political group that criticized the majority, Jaime was a homosexual, and the girls were female children. The use of a narrator who was a part of one of these groups was essential, in that only someone on the inside of such prejudices would be able to see all that is going on surrounding the issues within the story.
Another thing I found interesting was the presence of Aaron, who was as liminal a character as Iago in Othello. It was never really clear as to whether Aaron was on the side of good or evil. He attacked Hark, but only after being provoked. He may have heavily persuaded Harriet to become his lover, but he did not rape her. He attacked Sheila, but we are only told her side of the story about the attack, so we don’t know what she may have done to him. He protected Barry. And in the end, he forced the hand of the murderer and saved Sadie’s life. But I would hesitate to call him a good person. What was clear enough was that he was somewhere between the two sides and was also the catalyst for much of what happened in Aurelius during the kidnapping investigations. With very little prompting, he was able to encourage much of the horror to unfold from itself.
Donald as the murderer was another bow to Shakespeare. His constant hand washing, in attempts to absolve himself of the responsibility or guilt of murdering, and his decisive cutting off of the offending left hands of the females was a very subtle note of characterization that spoke volumes of what kind of person Donald was.
And the ugliness unfolded. The Friends morphed from a group dedicated to finding the lost girls to a vigilante group that targeted any and every one it felt could have been suspect, with no regard to laws or common respect. There was the townsman who admitted to molesting his own children. The narrator himself confessed to his distress at having watched the neighbor in her bedroom several times without her knowing it. The likely innocent desire to be friends with girl children turned into something reviled and a reason to shun every adult male who had such friendships. All dark sides of human nature were revealed, even though the townspeople really wanted for their baser natures to remain covered. Dobyns showed us in his story that the worst monsters are the ones whose monstrosity is hidden beneath glitter and shiny golden facades. More terrifying that these monsters could well be us.
Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.