Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Let's hear it for Poppy Z. Brite, or, love is the guts

Hello! Welcome, welcome. No story this week, no, this is one of those alternate weeks where I just ramble about writers and writing. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s difficult to tell what works with this blog, so let’s just chat for a bit and if you’re not interested, then no hard feelings.

This week I’m going to ramble a bit about an author that I discovered only recently. Poppy Z. Brite is best known to me as a horror author, as that’s the only stuff of his that I’ve read. That’s certainly the genre in which Brite came to fame, with two supernatural horror novels, several short stories, and a horror novel that isn’t supernatural but contains some of the most gruesome stuff that I’ve read, all of which were published between 1992 and 1996. So, I suppose if you’re not interested in horror then it may be time to close this window and think “Maybe there’ll be a non-horror story next week” (There might be.)

But Poppy Z. Brite is also known and respected as the writer of dark comedies set in restaurants of New Orleans, which he's been writing since the late 90s. From what I’ve heard, he seems to have abandoned, at least for now, the horror genre entirely. But what he did in that genre with those three novels is so potent that it’s interesting that I don’t know any authors who’ve even attempted to go down the same path, let alone had any success with it.

The three novels are Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and Exquisite Corpse. The first two are related by virtue of the fact that they share the same town (the wonderfully named Missing Mile) and some of the same inhabitants. However, while the first is a vampire Gothic romance, the second is much more of a classical Gothic exploration of inherited insanity, mixed up with a dash of William Gibson-esque cyberpunk. The third is, to put it simply, about two necrophiliac serial killers who find each other in New Orleans, and the young Vietnamese man who crosses their path with very unfortunate consequences. All three feature homosexual relationships between men as their main romances and are very light on female characters (Drawing Blood's female lead fares better than any of the women in Lost Souls).

Fittingly, all three of these gothic horrors (and they're heavy on the black clothes as well as fitting the literary style) are based around love stories. Lost Souls has a teenage boy called Nothing leaving home to search for his favourite band and falling in with a group of vampires instead, tumbling into a love affair with their leader Zillah. Zillah and Nothing are tied to each other in many different ways, but it’s a compelling mix of shoe-gazing teen angst (everyone in Lost Souls and Drawing Blood listens to Bauhaus) and debauched mayhem. Brite’s careful to sprinkle fragile characters in amongst all the transgressive sex and wet pools of blood, and the book keeps hold of its connection with the reader even as it repulses.

A little lighter on the gore but still heavy on the angst is Drawing Blood, in which hacker Zachary Bosch (yep) falls in love with Trevor McGee. Aged five, Trevor was the only one spared when his father killed the rest of his family then himself. Trevor’s returned to stay in the house his family died in. Needless to say, the house is...unquiet. What’s interesting to me about Drawing Blood is what Brite keeps and what he discards. The town’s the same, the band from Lost Souls (called Lost Souls?) are out of town but referenced. But there’s no discussion of vampires. I really like the idea of keeping this basic setting but switching the sub-genre. Drawing Blood is violent but it doesn’t luxuriate in spilled guts quite so much as its predecessor. However, it’s just as caught up with pop culture. Bauhaus, William Gibson, etc, both novels are loaded with early 90s Goth-culture. The characters in these novels dress in black, listen to exactly the music you’d expect them to. Parents are absent, or worse, killers, or worse...but that would be telling. Reading these books after the genre has gone through some changes, it's tempting to view this as dated posturing. But what’s interesting and what makes it work is the fact that it doesn’t feel like Brite is writing to pander to that audience, he’s writing it because it what he knows and what he’s interested in. Posturing, you suspect, it ain't.

This subject of Brite writing about what he's interest in writing about comes to the front with Exquisite Corpse. This is not a novel written by someone who’s concerned about what the audience thinks. It’s a gruelling if fairly brief read, with long and graphic descriptions of necrophilia, cannibalism, murder, torture, and all of that. It’s also probably the weakest in terms of plot, with a British serial killer faking his own death and travelling to America to continue his work, where he meets his American counterpart. But it’s certainly atmospheric. If it was just gory and gruesome, the novel wouldn’t quite have the same lingering effect. There is also a love story, with young Tran attempting to distance himself from his HIV-positive lover Lucas that is unfortunately timed with Tran's meeting the two villains. The point I'm trying to get at is that if it just went for shock value, it wouldn't be nearly as shocking. You get suckered into the world of the story whether you like it or not.

All these novels are identifiably Brite’s. Yes, they’re perhaps a little too in love with themselves but that’s a frequent consequence of writing that’s so incredibly confident. Brite tells the stories that he wants to in the way he wants to. There is absolutely no concession to a mainstream audience. From the pop-culture to the sexuality to the gore, all three novels (though Exquisite Corpse does stand alone, both in subject and tone) have that gripping feeling that you’re being shown a distinctly personal worldview. Both Lost Souls and Drawing Blood have dated but the atmosphere Brite manages to conjure up is still incredibly powerful. And I suppose that's finally what I'm most impressed with. The feeling that those books leave you with.

My knowledge of current horror literature isn’t as strong as it should be but I can’t think of any authors at the moment that produce work that manages the tightrope walk between nauseating and beguiling. There are times when these three novels stomp across that line, but if you’re at all interested in exploring some more gruesome, sexualised horror novels, Poppy Z. Brite is worth your time. I would be very, very cautious in recommending them, though. Now that I think about it, Jack Ketchum may be the closest point of comparison, if Jack Ketchum was interested in skinny goths hanging around New Orleans bars and what they were listening to. Hey, I rambled about Mr. Ketchum a few weeks ago. Here's the link to that.

As a final point, it’s interesting to note that no one has made a film of these three books. This is unsurprising as it would be difficult to imagine any sort of audience beyond fans of the books. However, having seen Kaboom recently, I would very much like to see Greg Araki’s vision of Lost Souls or Drawing Blood.

Hope you enjoyed this, see you next week with a short story. On a personal note, I saw PJ Harvey twice in two days this week, the second time was on Halloween. Not scary, but just as thrilling and moving as anything I've seen or read recently. Obviously we all love Let England Shake but I'm going to be revisiting White Chalk a lot now.

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