BOOKS / And a very good fang too: A wave of Gothic fiction is enfolding the US and Britain in its cloak, bringing vampires in vanloads. Poppy Z Brite is a priestess of the cult
Sunday 13 March 1994
Brite's work is unclassifiable. It's called horror. At the moment, new American fiction seems divided into two distinct camps. On the one hand, phalanxes of would-be Raymond Carvers stride out of the universities and creative writing courses like the workers in Metropolis, eager to hit the keys on stories about blue-collar folk in mobile homes. Thom Jones is their latest wunderkind. On the other hand is a diverse group - some well known, some less so, some new and talented - united only by their focus on urban life and their outsider backgrounds. One could include Darius James, Darryl Pinckney, Bob Flanagan, Pagan Kennedy, Sapphire, Gary Indiana, Suzette Partido, Diamanda Galas, David Trinidad. And so on. These are writers from the streets and cities rather than the colleges. Many are from ethnic minorities. They have a dizzying circus of experience, and their writing reflects this. They have been prostitutes, sex workers, hackers, incest survivors, professional sado- masochists, performance artists, Aids activists, fanzine collectors, social workers and drug addicts. Poppy Brite herself has been a candy-
maker, mouse caretaker, artist's model and stripper.
There have been attempts to label these writers ('Generation X', 'New Narrative') but with only their outlaw sensibility in common it is hard to pigeonhole the work. Like Brite, they tend to concentrate on the fringes of contemporary experience. Their spiritual godfather is the LA writer Dennis Cooper ('Dennis is probably my favourite author,' says Brite) whose novels of language, desire and death have made him a grunge Georges Bataille.
The horror genre is one of the most fertile fields in which to find vivid new writing. It is an area where writers can develop, particularly if their themes are excessive and extreme. Later, however, the genre can become a ghetto. Patrick McGrath, like Brite a Penguin Original horror writer, is one of the few to have crossed over to 'serious' fiction - but quite unlike, for instance, Kathe Koja, whose novel Skin was published last year in Britain but, since it was classed as a horror novel, gained little recognition. Skin is a petrifying investigation into the youth cults that favour body art: piercing of the flesh, including genitals, tattooing and scarification. Her heroine, Bibi, ends up half human, half android. Kathe Koja is published in America by the same Abyss imprint of Delacorte that publishes Brite, and among its other writers are Tanith Lee, Melanie Tem and Brian Hodge. Serpent's Tail publishes many of them in Britain.
POPPY Z BRITE was born in 1967 in New Orleans and moved back there last year to live in the old French quarter, among 'those exotically named, haunted streets - Ursulines, Bienville, Decatur'. New Orleans is a far cry from Kensington on a rainy day, which is where I met her. Brite is a tiny girl with a feline face. Her Japanese-black hair is artfully cut into a fringed bob, thick and heavy as a block of shining wood. She is dressed all in black, her short skirt made of worn antique velvet. She wears a large, translucent crucifix. Poppy holds my cassette recorder gingerly, like a polite child with an unwanted biscuit, but very soon, in conversation, proves herself far from fragile. She is competent, professional, very much to the point. 'I've been writing forever. I submitted my first story at 12.' When she was 18 she sold a story to The Horror Show Magazine, a prestigious Californian publication edited by David Silva, and, she says, 'became a horror writer almost by default'.
Although Brite spent the first six years of her 'tempestuous' childhood in New Orleans, she left after her parent's 'ugly' divorce and moved to North Carolina with her mother. There she eventually attended college for about two months but dropped out to write Lost Souls. 'I think college is deadly for writers,' Brite comments.
Although Lost Souls was written in 1987-88, it finally appeared, after revisions, in 1992, and has just been published in Britain. Looking back, she says it seems to her 'like a very young book, a late teens, early twenties book, half depressed, half elated, a mixture of joy and despair'. She continues, 'After Lost Souls came out I think everyone expected me to be this pale, suicidal little Gothic, ghostly girl. They were about seven years too late]' She does admit to extreme depression and alienation at the height of her Goth involvement, and says she was 'into cutting my wrist for fun, playing with blood and all that'.
The heavy Gothic sub-cult with its vampire make-up, graveyard clothes and black nail varnish was originally a British invention which spread more slowly to America 'in the mid- to late Eighties - and it's still going on now'. She claims that the American version is 'less steeped in gloom and doom', and that she has come to believe that Goths 'do not necessarily court or worship death, they just refuse to fear it'.
Lost Souls is set partly in New Orleans and partly in Brite's fictional North Carolina town, Missing Mile. It focuses on two sets of boys. Molochai, Twig and their leader Zillah are real vampires, rocking around America in their black van, satiating themselves with blood, torture, raucous music, candy and a cornucopia of drugs. But these are not so much traditional vampires (no sleeping in coffins) as immortal fantasy Goths with their 'dark blots of make-up' and hair in 'great tangled clumps'. We meet them in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, 'where the liquor flows like milk, strings of bright, cheap beads hang from wrought-iron balconies . . . The sky is purple, the flare of a match behind a cupped hand is gold; the liquor is green, made from a thousand herbs, made from altars.' The boys in Missing Mile are a musician, Steve, and his friend, a gentle psychic called Ghost. The link between the two groups is a teenager named Nothing, Zillah's half-vampire son who tracks down his father and finds himself equally sexually drawn to him and to Ghost, men who represent the light and dark - or the human and non- human - sides of his personality.
Both Lost Souls and Brite's early stories are replete with fin de siecle imagery - ashes, roses, decay, spilt wine, opium, incense and candle- light, blasphemy, androgyny, perversion and demonic beauty. The mood of decadence and corruption, heightened by the visionary lyricism of adolescence, led me to believe that she was deliberately resuscitating the 1890s, and comparing its maddened millenarianismto the extreme behaviour of the end of our own century. Brite disabuses me of this notion. She was just observing Goth behaviour and writing down her fantasies, she says. She acknowledges an interest in Edgar Allen Poe, in Baudelaire and in Rimbaud ('I've always been interested in death and gore and pain. I wanted to be a coroner when I was little') but she has never read, for example, Huysmans. So much for critics. Goth culture is certainly influenced, if only unconsciously, by the decadent strategies of the past. As Brite says: 'With the Symbolist poets, it's not so much that they are a stylistic influence, but that we are coming from the same place.'
Stronger than any 'horror' in Brite's work is the highly erotic male homosexual sex: Lost Souls was nominated for a Lambda Award for outstanding gay-themed fiction. 'The male characters have never been a problem for me,' says Brite. 'It's the female characters that really make me stretch.' She says there are many women she loves and admires 'but as a gender they don't fascinate me the way men do'.
'Biologically I am a woman writer but it's never the way I've thought of myself. Ever since I was old enough to know what gay men were I've considered myself to be a gay man that happens to be born in a female body and that's the perspective I'm coming from.' I ask Brite whether she's ever thought of taking it as far as transsexuality. She says no, that she wouldn't make a very good man, being only 5ft tall, and anyway penile implants don't work well.
When Brite talks about her personal life, she declines to go off the record. 'I have no off-limits subjects as far as interviews go. You can print anything I say.' She continues, 'I live with two boyfriends. They are both bisexual and we have a three-way relationship. One of them is a chef and sometime poet and political activist. The other is primarily a mage - his main art form is ceremonial magic. He's half Chinese, a musician and practises martial arts.' They live above a second-hand bookshop in a part of the French Quarter that is, Brite says, about 75 per cent gay.
NEW ORLEANS, the Crescent city, is very important to Brite's personal mythology. She remembers being taken as a child to St Louis Cemetery No 1, where the great 19th-century voodoo queen Marie Laveau is reputedly buried. There is a startlingly accurate description of it in Lost Souls. The dead were buried above ground because the land was waterlogged, and they lie in little white houses or mausoleums. It is easy to get lost along the endless, winding pathways. When I was there a grey dog kept leading me back to Marie Laveau's tomb, which was covered with red crosses chalked in brick. It had dried flowers, ribbons, cigarettes, small change and candles piled before it, and was surrounded by supplicants muttering their incantations and requests.
Brite felt she had no alternative but to succeed as a writer - 'I knew that if I were still alive at age 26 I would be a successful writer. I didn't have a back-up plan, I wasn't fit for anything else. It was either make it as a writer or die.' Seriously? 'I might very well have killed myself in despair. I don't think that there's any sort of other life I could stand. You know if you have the talent. You know if you have the drive.'
Brite has already completed her next novel, Drawing Blood. 'It's a haunted house love story. It has to do with underground comics and computer hackers.' Brite emphasises that she 'always follows her obsessions', which are a virtual guide to the fetishes of alternative fiction. They also include 'serial killers, Japanese dismemberment, videos, jazz, death rock, Seventies glam metal and psycho-industrial noise.' The book should be published here soon. Brite says it has been reaching the gay market in the States - 'I'd just as soon be known as a gay writer as a horror writer. I don't like being genre-ised. I don't mind being called a horror writer but I'm not crazy about it, because it inevitably means that a lot of people who would like my books are never going to pick them up. After all, almost anything that Dennis Cooper has written could be called horror.'
Brite already has an astonishing variety of fans in America. Her psyche seems poised between the ordinary, functioning world of Missing Mile, North Carolina, which provides her work-ethic and psychological stability, and the haunted dream world of New Orleans, which contributes her exotic content.
For a while we discuss Louisiana voodoo, which Brite described in one story as 'a slapdash recipe concocted of one part Haitian graveyard dust, one part juju from the African bush, a jigger of holy Communion wine and a dash of swamp miasma.' Then we spend the rest of the time talking about the parking problems in New Orleans. They are really terrible.
'Lost Souls' is published by Penguin at pounds 5.99
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