The tragic figure of Houari Chihani in Stephen Dobyn’s The Church of Dead Girls serves as a near-perfect archetype of the Other in literature, that strange, unnerving outsider whose presence in a closed community serves as scapegoat for the unknown evil which comes from within. The Other serves as the screen onto which the projection of the collective Shadow is cast.
Houari Chihani’s aloof, narcissistic disposition toward the people of the ironically named and economically failing Aurelius, New York places emotional distance between himself and his neighbors. A history professor with a terrific pedigree yet bothersome teaching record, Chihani’s attitude toward others doesn’t win him many friends outside of a dozen or so students who see in the North African genius a genuine guru, someone who recognizes and acknowledges their difference, their own alienation, and gives them purpose as outsiders in their own right.
When the murders begin, Chihani and his followers become suspects. The professor is strange. He drives a strange car, a bright red Citroën. He has a PhD from the prestigious University of Chicago. He comes from Algeria. He openly declares that his students are ignorant, the townspeople are asleep, and that his mission is to awaken a few bright minds in order to change the community and drag it, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 21st century. For his efforts, Chihani’s windshield gets a rock pitched through it in the dead of winter.
Now a rock through your windshield might tell you that you need to amend your ways, or at least be a bit more circumspect in your rhetoric. But for the Marxist Chihani, this is merely a reactionary response to the truth. He drives the car home, snow blowing through the windshield, and doesn’t really seem phased by the attack on his property. His mannerisms and his behavior are strange, or even queer as some might say. His passionless responses to personal attacks only serve to heighten the mystique around him.
The ontological gulf between Chihani and the town of Aurelius isn’t insurmountable. He draws a crowd of disciples from the community, young outsiders like Barry “Little Pink” Sanders. Barry is bright, overweight, gay, and an albino. Barry is a natural target for children in his youth and is bullied his whole life. Barry’s charismatic friend, Aaron McNeal, is also drawn to Chihani.
In Aaron we find the potential mediator, the go-between for the proverbial mystic-on-the-mountaintop Chihani, and the townspeople of Aurelius. Yet Aaron’s own past is troubled. At the age of 13 he suffers a small, facial disfigurement due to a dog fight. His mother was notorious for her marital infidelities and, during his teen years, Aaron is taunted by bullies for her behavior. Eventually, Aaron bites off and chews the ear of his principle tormentor. When the murders that serve the plot of the novel begin, Aaron’s mother is targeted first, making him a natural suspect.
So the problem of bridging the gap between the majority and the minority populations of Aurelius serves as the theme for the novel. Beaten to death on Halloween night by a gang of vigilante louts, Chihani’s murder takes an immediate backseat to other concerns in the town. Nobody cares about the Other, about the scapegoat, and when his killers are apprehended, they are treated far better than the truly innocent who fawn over Chiani’s teachings.
Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, penned his magnum opus, Meditations, toward the end of his life. The work focuses, like most of the works of the Stoics, on how to be a good man and what that means to society. As mentioned before, the name of the town, Aurelius, is ironic. When viewed through the lens shaped by Aurelius, we realize that Chihani and his Marxist disciples are truly good people despite popular perception.