I read The Church of Dead Girls for the first time over twenty years ago. The gold paperback cover attracted me and Stephen King blurbed the book, which at the time wasn’t unusual. At one point it seemed like Mr. King was on a mission to blurb every book on earth.
The Church of Dead Girls isn’t a horror novel. It’s a mystery novel written by a poet with literary sensibilities. The first time I read it I figured out whodunnit. I am not bragging. Back then I read forty to fifty mystery novels a year, and the author plays fair – which means it’s possible to figure out who the killer is. The dead girls are covered with symbols, a topic the talkative killer can’t seem to shut up about.
So what did I think about The Church of Dead Girls on my second read-through? I have a lot to say about this book. The first thing that struck me is that the opening scene makes it obvious that the author writes poetry. People who haven’t read many poems might think poetry is all about the rhymes, but to me contemporary poetry is all about vivid, offbeat imagery.
James Dickey, former poet laureate of the U.S.A., wrote Deliverance, which has an awesome scene of canoeing past a chicken factory. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s husband, was the poet laureate of England, and he wrote some of the most violent, fucked up poetry I’ve ever read. Read a copy of Crow, if you can get your hands on it. He’s most known for writing the children’s book The Iron Giant, which was made into an animated movie. I took a few poetry classes in college and one of the things that struck me about contemporary poetry is how many contemporary poets end up killing themselves. And how dark and violent their work is.
The Church of Dead Girls certainly qualifies as dark and violent. I suppose people will compare this book to The Crucible, but I think Our Town is a better example. This book is heavy on exposition and is told from the point of view of a townsperson who is essentially omniscient. However, there’s a difference. Unlike Our Town, everyone in the town of Aurelius is either involved in a weird incestuous relationship, sexually insatiable, harboring a horrible secret, a psychopath, or a blithering idiot. The town of Aurelius is the worst place on earth to live, and the fact that the narrator seems unaware of this is one of the ways that he reveals himself to be unreliable; the other way is that he conceals the identity of the killer from us.
A digression: years ago I saw a production of Our Town in New York City with my father. Paul Newman starred! I recall the play being full of pithy small-town wisdom, and my father – no doubt overcome by the pithiness – fell asleep. During a particularly pithy pause in the dialogue, he let out a great snore. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single greatest moment of father-son bonding in recorded history.
Oh, yeah: the book. The Church of Dead Girls has two protagonists, Aaron McNeal and Ryan Tavich. Aaron returns to town to find the killer of his mother Janice, whose murder is the book’s inciting incident. The narrator tells us that Aaron blames the town for his mother’s death; I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think he figured that nobody there was capable of finding her killer, and he was right. Ryan Tavich, the other protagonist, is a cop who had a brief fling with Janice. He wants to find her killer, also.
If you combined Aaron and Ryan you’d have a kick-ass protagonist. Aaron is whip-smart, but you can make a good case he’s a psychopath himself. To be fair, that’s not totally true. Aaron has his moments of humanity. The narrator thinks he pays attention to Sadie to use her as bait to catch the killer, but they have something much more basic in common: they both lost their mothers. Ryan is a nice guy, but he’s not too smart. That’s not fair, either: he’s a small town cop, and not equipped to deal with the ensuing shitstorm.
The plot concerns three young girls who go missing. The authorities fixate on the Marxist reading group at the local college – no, I’m not kidding – because they are low-hanging fruit. In the authorities’ defense, in 99% of the cases obvious wins the day. Unfortunately, this is the other 1%. The author’s use of imagery, exemplified by the opening and the ear scene – Aaron doesn’t just bite Hark’s ear off, he chews on it and then spits it out – is weird and unsettling. However, in some cases, it goes too far.
The thing that struck me most on my second read of The Church of Dead Girls is that this book’s treatment of women and gay people is just awful. Janice liked men and she liked sex, which is fine, but some of the descriptions of her sexuality read like something you’d find in Playboy Magazine. The murder of Jaime is off-the-charts violent and lurid. The narrator’s deep dark secret is a homophobic fairy tale that has been debunked for decades. I understand that this was the late 80’s/early 90’s, but in some cases the author goes way overboard and really rubs the reader’s face in it, as exemplified by the scene depicting the abuse of Barry in the graveyard. It is these passages stop me from recommending The Church of Dead Girls.