This high class thriller is now something of a Halloween classic at our house, revisited almost every October since it was published in 1997. It involves a serial killer, but it is not just a "serial killer novel," a form standardized by the formula of slasher movies ad nauseam.
As Stephen King says, "Long after most other tales of murder and insanity have panted to their foregone conclusions, the suspense in this tale continues to build. The Church of Dead Girls is a meditation on hysteria, immensely ambitious, but Dobyns tells the tale with the calm--and the fearful inevitability--of a man walking down a long hotel corridor to a room where some awful thing is waiting...If ever there was a tale for a moonless night, a high wind, and a creaking floor, this is it...Very rich, very scary, very satisfying."
Yes, and more than that. This novel, more than any other I have ever read, reminds me of Rod Serling's terrific story, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," which also takes place in October. These stories show how our fears can bring out the worst in us, how our hysterical search to find a killer can turn us into killers ourselves.
The left hand on the first edition dustjacket--and the severed left hands in the novel--represent the hidden side of us, the shadow, animal side suppressed by civilization, the left hand of darkness.
The protagonist tells us, "Just as we are only aware of the surface parts of one another's minds, so are we only aware of the surface parts of one another's behavior. We see the polite part, the public part, and we can only speculate on what exists underneath. But usually if the surface part is conventional and well-mannered, we assume the rest to be also. Although what does that mean? How can we assume that a person's secret self is equally conventional and well mannered?"
Rod Serling might have written that himself. The first paragraph of his story might set the scene both for his story and for Stephen Dobyns' novel. It opens thus:
"It was Saturday afternoon on Maple Street and the late afternoon sun retained some of warmth of a persistent Indian Summer. People along the street marveled at winter's delay and took advantage of it. Lawns were being mowed, cars polished, kids played hopscotch on the sidewalks. Old Mr. Van Horn, the patriarch of the street, who lived alone, had moved his power saw out on his lawn and was fashioning new pickets for his fence. . .
It was 4:40 p.m. A football game blared from a radio on a front porch, blending with the other sounds of a Saturday afternoon in October. Maple Street. 4:40 p.m. Maple street in its last calm reflective moments--before the monsters came."
"The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" first aired on New Year's Day after the Halloween of 1959, a year of racial unrest when the national news reported that Martin Luther King was a communist conspirator and there was the usual fear-mongering about the Russians and fall-out from the atomic bomb. At the end of the television episode, the camera panned up for a shot at the starry sky, with Rod Serling's narration:
"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fall-out. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices--to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fall-out all its own for the children...and the children yet unborn."
There was a pause, and then, "...and the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to...The Twilight Zone." And the stars faded to black.