Let me begin by saying that exposition is the toughest thing for me to figure out. When I read it, I often feel bogged down by it and start picking places where it could be cut down. And, contrary to what my mentor tells me, I believe that it’s what I struggle most with in writing. Where do I place it? How much do I give at what point? But I adore it when it’s done well.
So, when I realized that the majority of the novel The Church of Dead Girls would be told in exposition by a narrator whom I was given no reason to trust, I became concerned that I’d want to pick it apart. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by Stephen Dobyns. Somewhere within the first or second chapters, he was able to hook me, though I couldn’t pinpoint what that hook was. Sometimes it’s obvious, others you don’t really notice at all. You just begin to notice that you are no longer forcing yourself to read the book because it was assigned for school.
The abundance of exposition was done extremely well. How do I know this? Because, even though there was a shit ton, I never had the urge to start picking where details could be cut. Each detail provided about the town of Aurelius and its citizens aided in creating an overall look and feel of our setting and its characters. And given that I actually live in upstate New York, not getting bored with the details really said something about this 445-page novel. It had a more literary feel than most of the novels I’ve read so far for my graduate program. I could tell I was dealing with a seasoned writer who wrote the novel for reasons other than to explore a psycho. Actually, the psycho and his motives ended up being quite a small part of the novel. Dobyns delved deeper, into the psyche of an entire town and how contented lifestyles are often only content on the surface, and what happens when something occurs to disrupt that.
Although I read this for a class on psychos in horror, the overall vibe of the book felt more mystery (a nice reprieve after the nauseating and horrifying details in American Psycho). The majority of the time, I was going back and forth between characters, trying to figure out who was our “psycho,” and if perhaps there were multiple. Dobyns did a great job of making me feel as though I were a character in the novel, beginning to suspect and distrust neighbors I’d known my entire life. I think the choice in narrator was excellent for that reason. And because, even though he’s telling the story, his name and bits of information about him were still kept from me, I often suspected him to be the psycho, and I think it’s obvious that Dobyns intended this.
Many of the chapters that focused in on particular characters, drawing excellent sketches of them, often felt like short stories I had to read in undergrad, both by my peers and in literary magazines. This blending of literary and genre writing is what I appreciate most about The Church of Dead Girls, as I believe that such a combination is what makes for the best-told stories.