[Post has spoilers, etc., etc.]
Poppy Z. Brite
This story was selected out of the collection Wormwood, which mostly seems to be a collection of Brite’s early work, also published under the name Swamp Foetus. I’ve got it in this nice horror paperback here which is really dragging me back to those days in middle school and high school looking through racks of horror paperbacks published in the ’80s and early ’90s. Boy, that market sure shriveled up and died, didn’t it?
Okay, a quick side comment on gender. I’m not as knowledgeable about gender theory as I should be, so I’m trying to be as delicate about this as possible, but to sum up: the author of this book, Poppy Z. Brite, was at the time of the writing apparently identifying as female (or so the bio inside implies) and was born female, but at the time of this writing goes by the name Billy Martin and identifies as male. Ergo, I will be referring to Brite by male pronouns.
Well, aside from that, who is Poppy Z. Brite? Based on his writing, Brite seems somewhere between Clive Barker and Henry Miller, a born poet with a splatterpunk sensibility. Unfortunately, Brite’s writing lacks creativity of plot. I know I just took a sidebar last post to talk about how it’s good that genre work is repetitive, but the fact is that that’s only true with some elements. A detective story should have a lot of structural similarity but ideally should have a mechanism, clue, or villain that no one has seen before. Brite’s narratives tend to be repetitive and derivative in all the wrong ways.
That’s not to say I don’t like Brite, because I do. As I said, he has a way with words, and at times that really shines. He can take something as worn out as a zombie outbreak and make a story about it written in 1991 glisten like a fresh work of genius (I’m thinking of “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” which I don’t seem to be alone in identifying as a standout work in this collection). In this particular case we’re gonna cut right into the viscera of that problem, because this story is so very cliché.
His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood
The first line immediately gets me started on the wrong foot:
“‘To the treasures and the pleasures of the grave,’ said my friend Louis, and raised his goblet of absinthe to me in drunken benediction.”
Okay, clearly I’ve picked up one of those forbidden Anne Rice fanfics, eh? But continuing we quickly learn that while we are in New Orleans, these are not vampires we’re dealing with, at least not yet. The narrator describes the taste of absinthe as “part pepper, part licorice, part rot” and you can start to get a sense of that perfectly flowery prose that Brite employs. Whereas Barker’s purple prose always distracts from the story to me, Brite’s explodes the senses, makes the setting and world more than real.
The story, as I’ve said, is nothing special. The narrator and his friend Louis “were dreamers of a dark and restless sort.” They explore, drugs, sex, violence, each other. The setting of New Orleans is fitting because what we’ve got here is an imported theme: the long-running French engagement with the libertine, dripping out of Sade’s Bastille prison and down the centuries to contemporary society. The ennui of libertinage is yet to be solved, and this drives our two leads into the charnel houses, robbing graves to set up a ‘museum’ of found artifacts. As with the characters of Sade, Bataille, and others, the pleasure seems to come from the violation of norms. “Think,” Louis says, “of making love in a charnel-house!”
Soon they set out on a hunt for a very specific kind of transgression: they had heard of a voodoo charm and they want to steal it. They find the shriveled corpse—”Louis and I loved the translucent parchment skin stretched tight over long bones that seemed to have been carved from ivory”—and with it the charm, a carved tooth. Rather than submit it to the museum immediately, Louis decides to wear it out along with his flashy outfit. While they are about, they are approached by a beautiful androgynous boy who seems to know about the charm and is missing a tooth.
After a night of absinthe-fueled debauchery, the narrator wakes with the shriveled corpse of Louis (sans voodoo charm, of course) and what seems like a shed skin: “The thing was vaguely human-shaped, with empty limbs trailing off into nearly invisible tatters.” In the end, the narrator decides that he wants to find the corpse of the sorcerer in the coffin so that he may also die, to possibly feel the thrill of death. “Could it not be the sweetest thrill, the only salvation we can attain . . . the only true moment of self-knowledge?”
As I said, the narrative is pretty standard in the world of horror, but it is accented by little touches that Brite puts in. We are given a dichotomy between the two characters: while the narrator dresses in all black so that “if I walked with my shoulders hunched and my chin tucked down, no one except Louis would see me,” Louis dresses to that even when he “wore black, he did it to be noticed.” While the narrator finally chooses death, Louis “would have loved to live forever.” This all serves the sorcerer’s self-contradiction, as he puts it, “Instead of being rewarded with eternal life . . . you might be doomed to it.” The greater magic of the sorcerer has forced him to occupy the place of contradiction, alternately alive and dead, beautiful and shriveled, as in life he “would hand out … the kindest blessing . . . or the direst curse.” The capriciousness is emphasized here alongside the foolishness of libertinage. Even in the end of the narrative, the narrator foolishly assumes that all will be as he expects when he gets to the coffin—we are left not knowing what he found there, or if in fact death had anything to offer him.
This last point again brings me to Barker, who deals most explicitly with libertinage in The Hellbound Heart and its film version, Hellraiser. In Barker’s narrative, the libertine endangers those around him by bringing gods of pain into this world. Brite’s characters endanger no one but themselves and thus seem much more akin to the sort of morality-based narratives one associates with the 19th Century—or would, if it were not for ambiguous ending, where the narrator may have actually found the ultimate solution for his ennui in the dissolution of his body.
Final verdict: boringly enough, I’m going to also give this story an 8/10, but for totally different reasons than the James story. Whereas that was an example of classical mastery, Brite’s writing is sloppy but oozes with talent. If you read stories for the plot, I’m not going to recommend Brite to you; there was only one story in the entire collection that had a plot I would begin to call innovative (“The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire”). But if you’re the kind of person who likes to linger over beautiful phrases, particularly if those phrases describe shit and gristle, then Wormwood is definitely worth reading. A word of warning: Brite is very much a splatterpunk author, so there’s some nasty stuff in there. Additionally, while I hesitate to call anything misogynist without a closer look than I can afford at this breakneck pace of reading, a lot of these stories made me very uncomfortable in their depictions of women, and not in a good way. Still, for the average horror fan, Wormwood gets a recommendation.
Up next: “Worms of the Earth” by Robert E. Howard.
All quotations from Wormwood, Poppy Z. Brite, copyright 1994, Dell Publishing.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.