The Church of Dead Expectations

Published February 18, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

With a great title and promising premise, I expected Stephen Dobyns’ thriller to be just that–thrilling. Unfortunately I cannot join the choir of praise surrounding The Church of Dead Girls, because it was tedious at best, and poorly written at worst. Perhaps it’s just the terrible week I’ve had, but I utterly loathed this book. I almost hate to say that because there was so much unrealized potential.

One of the biggest problems facing this novel is the glacial pace at which events unfold. Whenever Dobyns finally manages to make something happen or build some tension, he immediately destroys it by following up with dozens of pages of exposition, subplots that ultimately go nowhere, or excruciatingly small and pointless details about minor characters. I fully understand that Dobyns wanted to immerse the reader in small-town life and thus make the burgeoning paranoia more authentic. It’s a shame, then, that his characters are wooden and unlikeable, that there are far too many, and that their dialogue is extremely artificial. I stopped caring about most of them long before the end of the book, if I ever cared at all.

Even more irritating is the rushed ending, after hundreds of pages detailing the minutiae of the town and its people. Donald’s conversation with Franklin in the lean-to borders on campy in its utter ridiculousness. It’s as if Dobyns thought, “How can I stress that he’s CRAZY?” and then threw in every idiotic serial killer cliche ever written. Girls are evil beasts that live to ensnare men with their sexual wiles? Yawn. Donald’s own demise at the hands of his brother is also unsatisfying; it essentially renders Aaron’s entire subplot a waste of time, despite Dobyns developing that character far more than he did Dr. Malloy. Not to mention that Donald (telegraphed early on as the killer due to the author’s obsession with his hands), being so underdeveloped, was not at all compelling as the murderer. I found the narrator far more sinister precisely for all the reasons Donald wasn’t. We get to know him; he presents a perfectly normal exterior, and yet by the end of the book there is no doubt that he has a few screws loose. By presenting his own peculiarities in such a calm and rational manner, he urges us to examine our own, and what we find may be as terrifying as the murders of innocent young girls. Perhaps, in this, Donald was merely the squeaky wheel, the foil to the quiet madness that lurks within all of us.

Another issue that pulled me out of the story was Dobyns’ reliance on passive voice. I know that he spent a good deal of time in journalism, and that has not translated well to fiction. At very few points in the novel did I ever feel I was being “shown” anything–most of the book read like a very long newspaper report. Part of me wants to believe that this was intentional, a way to reflect the suspicious nature of the townsfolk by keeping the reader at a distance. I also took issue with the POV. Either Dobyns is guilty of serious head-hopping, or the narrator is some kind of mutant who can be everywhere at once and enter people’s minds (it is not even remotely plausible that others revealed all of these events and their emotional responses to him after the fact). In either case, the result is confusing and sloppy. Dobyns clearly wanted an omniscient POV and his execution failed miserably.

Toward the end of the book the town’s paranoia becomes almost claustrophobic, and that is a good thing. However, it’s too little too late. Their plight, the secrets that all people keep and the idea that perhaps none of us are quite what we seem, are themes that could have been explored to great effect in the hands of a capable writer. Stephen Dobyns is not that writer. What should have been a disturbing exploration of the darkest parts of the human psyche was instead a boring chore of a book that I had to force myself to finish.

10 comments on “The Church of Dead Expectations

  • I enjoyed this book, but I have to confess that I wouldn't have made through the slow character-building stuff if it hadn't been an assigned read. You do a solid job here of explaining your displeasure, touching on pacing, pov, writing, character development, etc… The complaint that really makes me think is your criticism of Donald Malloy's lack of development. In light of the significant development of other characters, it does almost feel like a cheat.On an unrelated note — you jarred this by reminding me that Donald was killed by his brother — I'm still wondering if he was telling the truth and his brother was in on it all along.

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  • My original comment was eaten by a glitch so I'll keep this one shorter, in case the glitch is still hungry.I had the same issues you did with the book, which I think is sluggish and overwritten. The prologue alone could have been executed in about half as many words. Dobyns has a bit of a Dickensian streak in him, a need to move slowly, and weave a lot of useless information, scene scraps, sub-plots, florid dialogue, red herrings, throwaway characters, etc. around what is otherwise a straightforward story. Sometimes, I admit, I have a taste for this sort of thing, and othertimes it's just exasperating. I was more forgiving of it ultimately because I'm a fan of atmosphere and I think Dobyns was striving to establish atmosphere — a subtly uncomfortable, paranoid, creepy one — all throughout the novel. By the bye, I enjoyed your take on "serial killer cliches." This is a big pet peeve of mine but for some reason I didn't pick up on it until you did.

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  • I agree with the comment Miles made about Dobyns focusing on creating atmosphere. I thought that the writing was overly descriptive and that it got boring. But I figured it was all part of atmosphere. We're looking at a sleepy little town…so it was written in a sleepy little tone. Just as the townspeople had been lulled into a stupor and needed some event to wake them up, I started to feel the same thing was happening to me also. It didn't make for an exciting read, but the writing did match the setting.

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  • I hadn't focused much on the pacing until I read your post here, and your point is well taken. I think I saw it as fitting because the towns' decline into insane paranoia wouldn't have taken a day, or an hour, or a few minutes. it wouldn't have been rushed or sudden, because there is something far more sinister about a gradual, seamless transformation as opposed to a rushed one. It would have been a slow descent, detailed by various tiny, seemingly unimportant steps until everybody was acting the way they did in the book…much like the pacing was worked.

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  • So the technical aspects of the book (pacing, exposition, etc) killed it for you? Good. I'm glad you didn't just "like" it for the course. Your honest opinions are valid, and well thought out. The trick is to recognize what the author did wrong, and how you would improve on it. I think you have a good handle on how you would tackle this subject differently. Nice post.

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  • I blunderingly asked this on someone else's blog, but I'm curious how you would have handled the story, Jesnn, because I've asked myself just the question Scott did here, and I don't have any answers yet.Your comments on POV interested me as well, I often found myself forgetting that the story was first person when I was reading it, just as I forgot Chrichton's "Disclosure" was third person (not first) when I was reading that.

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  • No worries. šŸ™‚ That's a good question, though, and to be honest I'm not sure where I'd start. I felt like Dobyns had maybe a novella's worth of actual story and padded it with filler to make it novel-length. More emphasis on the characters directly involved and their development would have helped move the story along, especially if we had been drawn into the killer's world, rather than just teased with it in the prologue and at the very end of the book. It seemed like a cop-out by someone who just didn't know how to write about a serial killer. I hope that's some sort of answer! šŸ™‚

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  • For me, the amount of time Dobyns spent on the subplots intensified my enjoyment of TCODG. It seemed very ambitious to me – as a writer – to introduce so many different characters and scenarios and to make them all fit together and complement each other. I do agree that in the "reveal" scene, Dobyns went a bit overboard with the "women as sexual beings are evil" rationale. It has been done so many times that as creepy as that scene was, I cracked up laughing when Malloy was talking about the girl's "fur"… Perhaps that speaks to my own psychoses, I dunno. Very detailed and interesting post!

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