A teenager herself when her stories were being published in The Horror Show magazine in the mid 1980s, Brite's characters were the misfit kids, part of subcultural movements that I was familiar with and sympathetic to—punk and goth and whatever the mixture of the two beget. They hung out in filthy, ill-lit clubs, wore black rags and had messy hair and crashed in abandoned houses and churches, sleeping on stained mattresses and consorting intimately with a variety of partners, usually all in a New Orleans of perfume and rot. Certainly to an audience used to the familiar comforts of Koontz, King, or Saul this wasn't going to go over well at all, but it didn't need to; Brite's first novel, the highly anticipated Lost Souls (1992), was part of Dell's line of innovative and edgy horror novels not geared towards a mainstream audience. Published in hardcover, Lost Souls made Brite the hot horror commodity of the early 1990s. And it didn't hurt that her two earliest champions were Dan Simmons (who wrote the introduction for this collection) and the mighty Harlan Ellison.
When I first read most of these stories it was late 1993 and the collection was entitled Swamp Foetus, a limited-edition hardcover from Borderlands Press. This paperback edition from Dell did not come out until 1996, and then retitled Wormwood probably because someone took offense at the original. Still, it's a good title, evoking the poison and delirium of absinthe, then still a more or less obscure liqueur beloved of true arty decadent types. But it's also relevant since it refers to "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood," which was the first story I ever read by Brite, in 1990's Borderlands. I was hooked immediately. This story always reminded me of Lovecraft's minor tale "The Hound," yet it is undeniably Brite's own. Two young men, jaded and bored beyond belief by their excesses in art, sensuality, drink, and drugs, turn to grave-robbing for ghoulish kicks. Then, in a dank punk rock nightclub, they meet another boy who may offer them their greatest and most final thrill.
Dying: the final shock of pain or nothingness that is the price we pay for everything. Could it not be the sweetest thrill, the only salvation we can attain... the only true moment of self-knowledge? The dark pools of his eyes will open, still and deep enough to drown in. He will hold out his arms to me, inviting me to lie down with him in his rich wormy bed.
As the above passage might attest, much of Brite's fiction was populated by gay or bisexual young men; homoerotic overtones were the norm for her and definitely gave her work a true "outsider" edge. Her darkly elegant conflation of sex and death, usually so clumsily done in paperback horror, owes more to Baudelaire or Gautier than Barker or Rice (with whom she was often, and erroneously, compared). This is best seen in the later stories, both from 1991, the marvelous "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" (which I wrote about here) and "The Sixth Sentinel," which show Brite maturing as a stylist. They are poisonous confections, two of my favorites from the time, and ripe with the beauty of putrescence and the stink of sex. In "Sentinel" she lovingly describes a flooded, ancient graveyard:
Some of the things that have floated to the surface are little more than bone. Others are swollen to two or three times their size, gassy mounds of decomposed flesh... silk flower petals stuck to them like obscene decorations... Yawning eyeless faces thrust out of stagnant pools, seem to gasp for breath. Rotting hands unfold like blighted tiger lilies. Every drop of water, every inch of earth in the graveyard is foul with the effluvium of the dead.
1992 hardcover, Delacorte Press
Two friends from her first novel Lost Souls (1992), Ghost and Steve, appear in "How to Get Ahead in New York" and "Angels," adrift and wayward, on their own for the first time. The sleazy environs of 1980s New York comes right to life in the former tale while the latter evokes the circus-freak setting of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1989). Unkempt, doomed musicians play large roles in "A Georgia Story" and "Optional Music for Voice and Piano," depicted sympathetically and believably. "The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire" is set in the restaurant industry - many years later, all her novels would be - in a brutally modern world that has little need for love or flesh. Certainly the earlier stories, like "The Elder" and "Missing," may be a little slight, but it's obvious they were written with passion and care and intensity.
Wormwood is a must-read; it's been good, rewarding fun revisiting it. Are the stories scary? Not really, no. This, as well as the brooding teenage characters and sensual depictions of death, might be a turnoff off for some readers. But with their strange and compelling visions of a world populated by the outcast, the marginalized—indeed, by the dead themselves—Poppy Z. Brite's short stories show that true horror, facing it and embracing all its woes, may be bravest, most beautiful, the most rewarding thing of all.