Every fall around September or October, I start to itch for a good Poppy Z. Brite novel. While I love the series that she talks about in the video at the end of this entry, it's the earlier works, Wormwood, Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and even Exquisite Corpse that I turn to when the weather turns cooler and Halloween draws near. So, it's no surprise that when I saw Wormwood is on sale for Kindle for $1.99 this week that I grabbed a virtual copy.
I had no idea that reading this collection again (I used to have it in paperback) would lead to a break-up story.
Last night, I settled in to start the collection and was greeted by Ghost and Steve--characters who also appear in Lost Souls. It's been some 20 years or more since I first met those characters, and while I was happy to see them again, I see them as kids now, not as peers.
And that makes me a little sad. Granted, if I were still seeing myself in Ghost and Steve these many years since that would certainly indicate that I've been beyond stunted in my growth. Martin (formerly Brite) announced upon his retirement in 2010 that "Over the past couple of years, I've pretty much completely lost the ability to interact with my body of work."
Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel that same inability to interact.
I've been a Poppy Z. Brite fan ever since my friend Brian E. recommended I pick up Lost Souls and give it a read. That novel won a Bram Stoker Award in 1992 and it had to have been 1995 or so when I read it the first time. I was living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and going to graduate school and found the vampire novel set in New Orleans charming. I drank chartreuse and soda and imagined what it might be like to run in to PZB on the sidewalk or at a bar.
I kept reading. Drawing Blood, nominated for a Stoker in 1993, made me want to learn more about Charlie Parker. I also identified with the angst of the characters coming to grips with various addictions and compulsions, as well as coming to understand their sexuality. I reread that novel a few years ago and was struck by the complexity that I missed the first time. In my first reading, I had yet to come out myself. That denial of who I was made the novel scarier than it was when I revisited it later.
Exquisite Corpse is the darkest of the novels Brite wrote before moving on to the fictional portrayals of New Orleans restaurant life in Liquor, The Value of X, and Prime. This novel was also a Bram Stoker Award nominee in 1996. Interestingly, as she notes in this short piece, "Enough Rope," from 1998 this novel was too controversial for the publishers she'd previously worked with and she had to find a new publisher. Whereas the characters in Lost Souls and Drawing Blood were far more hesitant to embrace their sexual orientation and the rawness of it all, the characters in Exquisite Corpse revel in the bawdiness and face danger head on. I won't give spoilers here, but the novel involves a serial killer and also involves HIV positive characters. In "Enough Rope" Brite was quite aware of how the novel was rooted in her own fears about her relationships, her gender identity, and life in general.
And perhaps that's why on first reading for me the novel was one that I couldn't put down but was most terrified by. I was, at the time, still married to Huey, and we were both still deeply closeted. I remember riding down the highway (probably on a trip to visit his family) and reading the novel for miles until I couldn't take it any more and I'd slip it into the side door pocket and pick up my needlework (I'm not joking here--I still enjoy the odd needlework project but my motivation for doing them is simply to do them, not as some sort of emblem of my femininity and appropriateness as a future gestation vessel or domestic goddess).
I couldn't articulate my response at the time, but thinking back now about how those early novels were PZB working through her own identity issues on her route to become Billy Martin, I realize that one reason these books were so scary for me is that reading them is to witness her working out of those identity issues.
Back then, before we finally gave up the ruse, Huey and I used to talk about our own fears about living authentically. When I finally just gave up on lying to myself and everyone else, I remember we spent the day together at the Zoo in Montgomery, Alabama. I was involved with my first real girlfriend at the time (although I'm sure she still denies we were ever girlfriends, but that's a whole other set of break up stories). Apparently, I gave some gal the eye as she walked past me, and he was astounded by the difference in who I was then and who I had been when I was pretending.
This led to a long discussion as we drove back to my little rental house in Auburn. Mostly, he unburdened himself and I listened, asking questions here and there to keep the discussion going. He was scared, he said, of contracting HIV.
"You don't have to go have sex with the first guy you meet at a bar."
"I don't know where to meet guys, though, if I don't go to a bar. I don't know how to date a guy."
I waited a little bit and suggested, "Well, regardless of who you're doing--male or female--you need to use condoms until you are both tested."
He'd just sort of nodded and kept talking about his fears about being honest about who he was. Later, he confessed to me that he'd never be able to come out to his mother. "You don't need to come out to anyone, then. And certainly don't date any guys until you can imagine coming out to her."
On some level, I think that reading books that are psychological roadmaps of the trauma and rebirth that a writer has gone through--books like Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and even Exquisite Corpse--allow readers to overcome their fears. I'm appreciative to the artist formerly known as PZB that her stories were part of the background music of my own realizations.
Am I sad that Poppy transitioned? Not at all. Not any more than I am sad that Silas Howard transitioned after By Hook or By Crook. The art was a chrysalis in both instances, obviously. And, some 20 years later I can still enjoy the chrysalis for what it is.
I can't really mourn the death of PZB; to do so would be to ask a writer to continue the pain for the sake of something for me to read. And, thankfully, I would react completely differently to PZB's continued angst and pain. Her movement away from horror is pretty indicative of her own "doneness" with that transition. Perhaps those novels about Rickey and G-man in the kitchens of New Orleans were a long goodbye love letter to her former love, who was a chef himself. In the one interview of Poppy Z. Brite on YouTube, her description of the novel "if it were a man" is certainly a description of Chris DeBarr.
Since retiring, Martin continued for some time to write the blog "Dispatches from Tanganyika." Like any good fangirl, I return often to see if there are updates. The last entry was a little over a year ago. I hope that this just means that Martin is off living the life that he always wanted.
In my fantasy world, Billy Martin would write about how happy he is to have finally been realized. That's selfish, too--I need to accept that old breakup line of "It's not you, it's me." While I work on that, you'll likely find me rereading the early horror novels while I think about how grateful I am that Billy Martin made it through to the other side. I'm glad I did, too, even if it means that the early books are more nostalgic than they are scary.