Horror, Loneliness and Love: Rereading Poppy Z. Brite

With the world still in peril and the library still shut, I’ve recently found myself reconsidering my own book shelves. I only own a handful of books, mostly because my voracious reading habit would otherwise become rather space-consuming and expensive, and I rarely reread books anyway. But since I don’t like to read from screens, which means ebooks are out, and no imminent end to the current lockdown seems  likely, it looks like I’ll need to reconsider my principles.

Over the past week or so I’ve started to reread three of my Poppy Z. Brite novels: Lost Souls (1992), Drawing Blood (1993) and Exquisite Corpse (1996). I know these novels inside out, having written essays on all of them, and I hadn’t looked at them since because I needed a break. There is such a thing as knowing novels you love too well. This weirdly mirrors the attitude of Brite, now known as Billy Martin, himself. Having announced his retirement a few years ago, Martin had already distanced himself from his early work before, and his recent novels were less about cannibalism and carnage and more about the New Orleans restaurant scene anyway.

While I can understand how Martin’s personal circumstances may have impacted on his attitude towards his own work, I can’t deny that his triptych of early novels is still pretty damn good. Sure, they’re all fairly weak on plot, but what they lack in that department they gain in the areas of mood, atmosphere and characterization. When reread in succession, I’m struck by how beautifully they talk to each other. This is partially because characters often reappear in other novels – albeit sometimes only for the shortest of cameos – and because Martin often returns to North Carolina and New Orleans as settings. While I’m yet to visit either of those places, Martin makes me feel as if I’ve already been there, and have been friends with his eclectic cast of characters for years.

While the novels can easily be characterized as horror – they feature murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, torture – or LGBTQ+ fiction – most of the characters are gay, bisexual, or otherwise non-straight – the reason I carry on liking them is their ability to discuss big emotional themes without sounding clichéd or sappy. Loneliness is a pervasive trope – it causes Jay to kill young boys in Exquisite Corpse, and Zach to have sex with random strangers in Drawing Blood – and few writers other than Martin are able to describe it in such a poignant way. If you manage to make me understand a serial killer who eats his victims because he can’t truly connect to them while they’re alive, consider yourself talented.

For that’s another thing I love about Martin’s work: it is dangerous. It features controversial themes (incest, cannibalism, rape) not to shock but to explore the darker undercurrents of human nature. Most of his characters are abominable. Yet I want them to be my friends because they’re understandable and believable, no matter how crazy or supernatural their adventures often get. And sure, I know how dangerous it would be to be friends with someone like Jay, or how frustrating a companionship with Zach would be in real life. But rather than wagging literary fingers at his creations, Martin seems to feel affectionate towards them. They truly are misfits, often lonely, and invite compassion rather than disgust or anger.

It’s not surprising I’m craving escapism at the moment – who doesn’t? – and Martin’s work offers just that. His is a fictional world populated with insane and supernatural beings, set in a gothic version of the American South, peppered with mouth-watering descriptions of New Orleans food and, okay, steamy sex. Be judgmental if you must, but is it really that strange to crave physical contact in response to enforced social distancing, and turn to fiction to get what you can’t have in real life?

Image my own – Decaying beauty in Norwich’s Plantation Garden

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