You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


This is not going to be a easy to write as I thought. I had my first line all planned out and can still use it.

"Of course her real name is not Poppy Z. Brite. It's a pseudonym used by Melissa Ann Brite, born May 25, 1967 in New Orleans, Louisiana."

I got that much by glancing at Brite's Wikipedia entry. But  further down the page I picked up this bit of information: "Brite is a transgender man, born biologically female. He has written and talked much about his gender dysphoria/gender identity issues.[3] He self-identifies with gay males, and as of August 2010, has begun the process of gender reassignment. "

That I didn't know, but it goes some ways towards explaining why almost all of Brite's male characters, whether they are vampires, musicians, artists, drug dealers, or serial killers tend to be gay men.

An early publicity photo.
You don't want to know what she's thinking.
When I decided to read some horror fiction, I thought I would start with Brite because I had heard the novels were good, moody, sexy, and very bloody. She, as I thought at the time, represented the new generation of horror writers, steeping the novels in a gothic punk atmosphere the no other writer at the time -- the early 1990's -- had explored. Although she wrote stand alone novels, some characters and settings reappeared, creating a world of the supernatural and the grotesque that alternated between Missing Mile, North Carolina and New Orleans. (I love that name, Missing Mile.)

Brite's horror publishing career lasted only half a decade and produced three novels and two volumes of short stories. His first novel, Lost Souls, he began while still a teenager. When his last horror novel, Exquisite Corpse came out in 1996,  he was 29. Brite then turned to writing comic novels centered around the New Orleans restaurant scene. For the past several years, he as been on an official hiatus from writing at all. But I think with Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and Exquisite Corpse Brite has left a significant legacy in the horror genre. (I have not read the short stories.)

 Lost Souls is a lushly over-written, almost plotless tale of vampires traveling the country in what must be a very smelly van given their sloppy feeding habits. Their handsome leader, Zillah, keeps things somewhat under control with his more party-minded friends Molochai and Twig. They meet up with a confused, not yet out of the vampire closet fifteen-year old named Nothing. Nothing and Zillah almost instantly hit the sack,. In a scene that involves killing his best friend, Nothing learns he is a vampire. Later he learns that Zillah, due to a one night stand in New Orleans many years ago, is his father, a fact that does not put a crimp in the sexual activity. They hang out in Missing Mile, NC, which is a much hipper place than it sounds. They seduce some people, they kill some people, they meet up with an old friend from New Orleans and relocate. There they get involved with some other kinky types -- there's no point in going any further with this. Brite's enthusiastic prose keeps things happening if not exactly moving in any particular direction. It's fun, although long.

Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin
Drawing Blood returns to Missing Mile where the sole survivor of a family massacre returns twenty years later to confront family ghosts. He meets up with a computer hacker on the run from the feds and guess what, they spend almost all their time in bed -- or on the floor or in the shower. They are at the age when erections are so hard they ache. If the traditional horror audience of 16 to 25 year old males actually read this book, things have changed. Or maybe that demographic only applies to horror movies and not horror fiction. Drawing Blood is a haunted house story of sorts, with lots of rock and roll, gay sex, and mushroom ingestion. It is also a romance with a happy romance ending that I personally thought was out of place, but I suspect Brite, or at least his publishers, know their audience.

And what to make of Exquisite Corpse? Brite says his original publishers turned it down because it was too extreme. They would have had a point. The descriptions of necrophilia, torture, and cannibalism are like nothing in the previous novels. The book has at least a couple of images that unfortunately will most likely always be with me. But her publishers might also rightly have considered this novel something of a mess. HIV and AIDS are prominent elements in the story, and perhaps the serial killers are meant to represent the death sentence the disease was considered at the time. This is Brite's best writing. The grotesque sex is like the Marquis de Sade minus all the frou-frou. or Georges Baitaille without the pretension. What ever was intended, Exquisite Corpse might best be considered grand guignol fun. It is also a book I would never recommend to anybody I know, fearing recriminations.

Brite's three novels are quickly becoming period pieces, and you have to find them squeezed onto the shelves surrounded by all the paranormal romance and zombie crap that dominates the field. I like to imagine some unsuspecting Laura K. Hamilton fan will pick up Exquisite Corpse and live to regret it.

Read my reviews of individual Poppy Z. Brite novels on Worlds Without End

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