The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns takes a theme of private lives and spins it into an enjoyable read. This is a book that I read this second time around with great pleasure, despite not having read it over and over again in previous years.
The telling of the story from the viewpoint of one person was especially adept. There was no guarantee that the narrator would not turn out to be the murderer. But though he wasn’t the murderer in this book, I’m not convinced that he has never committed murder or that he won’t at some time in the future.
His self revelations during the story seem to point to his having private thoughts that cause him to lean in the direction of “murderer in waiting”. First, we never even get his name. When he gives us bits and pieces of his personal back story, he seems to have had many of the same types experiences and feelings that our killer has, or at least, those that we have seen killers have in other works.
He was a bachelor biology teacher who lived in the same home he had as a child and retained many of the furnishings from his childhood. He was gay, but didn’t want to own up to it and was sexually repressed. Though he owns up to this repression, he still peeps in the neighbor’s window and watches the adult daughter masturbate. Not for sexual excitement or arousal, he states, but, “…it seemed it wasn’t sexuality that I was watching; rather I was seeing into her deepest nature…what if our positions were reversed?” (Dobyns 131). Not only is he intrigued by the darkness in others, but he wonders what it would be like to expose others to the darkness within him. Foreshadowing an inclination to kill, perhaps?
The narrator did not have the best relationship with his mother and he collected dead things and had them on display. Granted, they were not on public display, but he could look at them whenever he wanted and people he cared for, like Sadie, could look at them. It may be natural for biology teachers to collect specimens, such as they are scientists, however, the narrator’s little collection was a bit macabre to be considered strictly scientific.
That he added Donald Malloy’s hand to the collection at the end was not surprising. He even gives it “the place of honor between the fetal pig and the human fetus” (Dobyns 417). This positioning almost foreshadows the fact of murderers being somewhere between animal and human, but not quite either. He further states that, “I think of it as my private teacher. My own academy. It instructs me…I try to think what those fingers felt and I scare myself” (Dobyns 417).
His collection of the hand goes beyond simple fascination or a scientific curiosity. Our narrator has been a murderer in waiting, biding his time for such a circumstance as Donald Malloy’s killing spree to motivate the same urges within himself.
Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.