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.