Some authors come into a reader’s life at exactly the right time they are needed. Whether the subjects they fixate upon, the beauty of their prose, or the themes they tackle, some element just connects with a reader. It’s at those times, that even the most cynical of audiences will stare transfixed by a book. The more expressive might clutch the book to their chest and declare undying devotion. Sometimes the authors stick around for a while, showering the devout with new perspectives. Sometimes the authors pass on to other interests – writing is a lonely business and filled with jackasses who declare they know better but only rarely do. Sometimes the authors come back.
Poppy Z. Brite is one such author. His prose appeared on my radar when I was in college and confused as hell about my bisexuality, and the ghostly novel Drawing Blood was one of those works I both stared at transfixed and clutched to my bosom and swore devotion to (I am nothing if not full of contradictions). It tackled GLBTQA topics in an engaging ghost story that was fascinated with all the things I was fascinated with at the time (and still am) – the delightfully decadent and surreal work of William S. Burroughs, the equally decadent and surreal underground comics by such luminaries as R. Crumb, extreme horror, difficult love between fundamentally broken characters – and added a nice drenching of atmospheric prose. That book as well as Brite’s other works (Lost Souls, Wormwood, Exquisite Corpse, etc.) helped bring a little clarity to my own screwed up perspective, and revealed the truth as though it were a magic trick: Tada! That my perspective wasn’t screwed up at all. The problem was my own understanding that curious space between keyboard and chair, as the IT crowd will tell you. I was a college kid, though, and screwed up headspaces seemed to define college kids at the time.
Anyway, in 2008, Billy Martin (aka Poppy Z. Brite) decided to leave the publishing world. I was glad for the many, many books I had collected and read over the years; I was sad that no more would come (What about Ricky and G-man of the Liquor series of novels? Inquiring Dans wanted to know.). I moved on, as they say, to other authors hoping that maybe some day the writing bug would strike Martin again.
Well, ladies and gents, that day showed up. Just this week, in fact! Billy Martin has released an eXclusive eBook, collecting together the last piece he wrote (“The Gulf”) as well as a brand new bit of flash fiction (“Last Wish”). I was both excited and a bit worried – over the last decade or so, had I stuck Martin’s prose on a pedestal that nothing could hope to live up to? Also, I am a different person now than I was when I was either a confused college dude or the person I grew into by ’08; would that prevent me liking the new stuff?
Silly, stupid worries. First world problems. Call them what you like. Unrealistic and wrongheaded. I was captivated all over again.
Let’s take a look at the offerings in reverse order of presentation.
“The Gulf” first appeared in a 2008 anthology from Burton, Michigan’s own Subterranean Press (Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy). I didn’t acquire that particular volume at the time, and am glad to have the story here.
The Gulf is a slow to build piece, which gives us the story of an exile finding his place in the world. It’s a moody tale, touching without being sentimental, written with clarity and serious craft. It starts with some smile-worthy recollections about a family moving to the Gulf Cost part of Mississippi after living in New Orleans. It moves on to a curious rescue in a carnival crazy house, when protagonist Joe helps a girl escape an optical illusion. It’s one of those memories that lingers for Joe, taking on new meaning in the face of what follows some years later, after Joe has grown up and returned to New Orleans. The Storm, of course, is what ultimately follows and the devastation it brought to the gulf is rendered with that same unflinching eye and lyrical prose Brite brought to his horror works and subsequent food-centered series of novels. Katrina’s impact comes across through a pair of hand made signs which Joe photographs after the destruction: The signs are simple messages, one a rather nice humorous piece of New Orleans wit (HOUSE FOR SALE, SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED) and the other providing the name for this review (THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BITCH).
“The Gulf” is not a simple meditation on loss, as it might be in another author’s hands. It is not a melodramatic piece about how awful Katrina’s impact was, as it might have been in a less skilled author’s hands. Instead, it is a synthesis of emotions, which uses The Storm as a point for reflection. The story ultimately gives Joe the chance at a new perspective, and the opportunity to refine his view of being an exile. It also gives him cause to dream about that girl he helped out in the carnival crazy house all those years back, to think about the woman she might have grown up into. The story even includes a reference to Bradbury’s “The Lake“, which is another piece about oceanic loss, regret, and fantasy. The end result is a moving, meaty piece that repays rereading. I should know, as I’ve read it twice since grabbing it for my eReader.
“Last Wish” is a clever, moody, and darkly comic piece that hearkens back to Brite’s horror days. It’s about a tree where many people have died by hanging. As Brite says in the story, “Some of these had suspended themselves; some of them had been suspended.”
To this “ancient, and bent, and probably cursed” tree comes an “old, and bent, but not quite broken” man who is looking to die. He is not content to die a quick death, though. Under the watchful eye of a raven, he commits to the most painful death he can imagine: a botched hanging.
Brite’s prose is as good as ever, the details lovingly rendered, and the final twist nicely done. Oh, this story is a brief but welcome treat, the release coinciding perfectly with the season.
As I have already indicated, I’m a sucker for Poppy Z. Brite. I hope that this little book will be the first of more to come. If it is not, then I will cherish what we’ve got (and maybe go reread some, now. I have the bug) and be sad for no more, but ultimately move on.
There will always be more books to read; at this point my to-be-read piles will probably last longer than I will. However, if Billy Martin chooses to release another story, collection or (gasp!) novel, then it will move to the top of the heap.