I’ve long held a fascination with Poppy Z Brite. As an emerging teen goth in late 90s, her (as she was known then) books were like the holy grail. They were extremely violent and gruesome, they were deviantly sexual and on the surface seemed to completely humanise and romanticise serial killers and cannibalism. Plus, they were riddled with hot gay men. Some of them innocent wayward boys, some of them diabolical killers. Poppy Brite was my hero.
All of that was the angsty, blood-thirsty teenager in me. I read them because I thought it was cool; because I knew that I shouldn’t. Because I was too young to read them. A small act of rebellion.
But as I’ve grown up, I’ve returned to Brite (now known as Billy Martin after transitioning to a man), on numerous occasions – his books never made it to the charity shop – and I can now appreciate them on another level. They are not just made-to-shock throwaway novels. They’re important novels that act almost as a social commentary of New Orleans, focusing on the issues of feeling different, alienated; on diversity. Brite writes with such a morbid passion. She can describe gutting someone as poetically as falling in love.
If you’ve never read any of Brite’s books, I highly recommend starting with Lost Souls. It’s set in New Orleans, like most of his stories, and centres around three wannabe rock star, bisexual vampires, one of which impregnates a human girl and the child, known as Nothing grows up wondering why he feels so alienated, until eventually meeting up with his blood-thirsty father.
In the past, Brite has been attacked for lacking morals, and writing gratuitous gore and casual sex, and to an extent I guess that’s true, but there’s more to her stories than that, and I can’t think of another writer who creates such evocative atmospheres, and bitter-sweet nostalgia for youth and days gone by.
For Horror October, I decided to read Self-Made Man, a book of short fiction by Brite that I’d never got round to buying. My friend Dora found it in a charity shop and lent it to me. I was dubious after not really loving Love in Vein, another story collection. Short stories just don’t seem to be my thing, even by authors that I love.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by Self-Made Man. It begins with a very short story written from the perspective of a maggot in a slaughter-house which is basically a showcase for Brite’s ability to make disgusting, putrid things sensual.
Arise, is a story about Cobb, a reclusive ex-pop star who faked his own death, who hears that his old band-mate has died. He then gets a mysterious letter saying that he has left his secluded house to him. Did he know all along that Cobb was alive? And why would he leave his house to him? I really liked this story. It had twists and turns and lots of intrigue.
The titular story, Self-Made Man was a hit too. It’s very much in the same breath of novel, Exquisite Corpse, based on cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s not for the faint-hearted. As was Vine of the Soul which reunites us with two characters from Drawing Blood.
The rest of the stories I could take or leave, but my favourite part of this book was the author’s notes on each story. Fascinating, as ever.