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Book Review: Lost Souls, by Poppy Z. Brite

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It’s been at least 10 years since Poppy Z. Brite’s novel Lost Souls hit the presses, so any review written now feels belated – however if it brings a few more people to the grotesque groaning table of delights Poppy delivers then it’s worth the writing.

Poppy Z. Brite is disarmingly normal if you read her livejournal site, a basic author’s blog with posts about whatever is going on with her at the moment, whether it’s new food discoveries, issues relevant to writers and fans, politics – she sounds like a person who would be easy to get to know and like.

However, after reading Lost Souls I’m afraid of Poppy Z. Brite.

I’m only kidding, but seriously…this is a great gristle and blood-filled romp of a book. Part picaresque journey a la Kerouac, part coming-of-age, part straight-up mystically tinged, gory vampire goodness.

There are several characters that take the mainstage at different points, so it’s not like there is one protagonist – a writerly ability Poppy Brite has that few others can match is that ability to write an ‘ensemble’ novel. Meaning that every character gets their moment, their shine or shame, depending on the situation.

To me, the characters of Ghost and Steve are the center of the tale.

I have to say, I love Ghost, not just because my name is Steve. In Ghost Poppy Brite creates a character of immense, clear goodness. He is the heart of the novel. Like Niki Ky in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novels Silk and Murder of Angels Ghost has a bit of the classic ‘holy fool’ about him – more Parsifal from the Grail Legends and Wagner opera than Peter Seller’s character in Being There. Though there’s nothing ‘foolish’ or blundering in Ghost. He’s sometimes led by feelings he doesn’t understand into amazing situations. Ghost is psychic, and his gentle, sensitive nature makes this ability to shine, to feel the real ghosts around him, the hearts and lives of other characters, terribly painful to him. Even though there is a homoerotic element to his and Steve’s relationship, they are not lovers. This is what makes Steve a great character in his own right. He was just another cracker North Carolina boy heading toward a destiny of beer, barbecue and backseats until he became friends with Ghost. Steve is a primal, forceful character, and in a way he performs the function of a kind of classic hero in the story. But you can’t completely like him in the end – he lets his brutal nature take him over too many times, and only Ghost seems able to calm that.

Central to the overall story is Nothing, the half-vampire who finds his true self in these pages. Nothing is just any other disaffected Goth kid when we first meet him, until something he doesn’t completely understand sends him running away from home one night, and ultimately into the arms of wandering party-boy vampires Zillah, Molochai, and Twig. If Ghost is the good heart of this tale then Nothing is it’s more ambiguous component, a creature who has some baseline morality, but cannot in the end deny it’s truest nature. Of the three partying vampires, Zillah is the most evil, and yet seductive, character in the novel.

I don’t like to give story spoilers, as all I’m trying to tell you here is that it’s a book that is very much worth the expense and the time spent reading. It’s more important to explain that this is a fantastically well-written book. The plot is multi-layered and in another writer’s hands might have been terribly difficult to follow – Poppy Z. Brite weaves each strand of story into a beautifully symmetrical braid by the end – nothing ever feels tossed in as a late fix, there are no veiled ‘deus ex machina’ moments. She shares with Caitlín R. Kiernan the gift for a certain kind of poesy, and also like Kiernan Poppy Z. Brite rarely lets any character loose – to death or circumstance – without the reader getting to know them in depth. Neither writer succumbs to the “new ensign” phenomena so familiar to viewers of the old Star Trek series – where each time a new ensign beams down with Captain Kirk or Spock you know exactly who is dying in the next phaser fight.

If you are squeamish, like your horror served up with a little detachment, you shouldn’t bother. However if you understand that the writer’s intention is to bring you a fully realized, breathing, bleeding world, then you want to read Lost Souls. The gore – and there is gore – is crucial to the development of the characters, to their psychology, to an understanding of the overall story.

Poppy Z. Brite lives, like another female novelist who has written about vampires, in New Orleans, and the final element in the novel I want to mention is Brite’s New Orleans – she removes some of the grandeur that other novelist gives the city and lets you feel it’s grit, it’s good scents and it’s wretched odors. Her New Orleans is a darker, more haunted place. To me this makes it that much more fascinating, intriguing.

After reading such a well-crafted novel it’s hard not to ponder why one novelist is a superstar and another is not. While Poppy Z. Brite is popular enough that I finally bought the novel to see what she could do with a full-length tale, (I’d read some short stories in anthologies and liked her style), I feel her writing is good enough that the audience should expand far beyond what it seems to be.

The women who are now writing dark fiction long ago achieved artistic parity with the men who dominated the field. The recent reading I’ve done is to me much more reminiscent of the giants who are now bowed to in the genre; the great Easter Island head of Lovecraft, petite and whey-faced Poe. Not only is the storytelling excellent, the style is unique, the prose sometimes far better than anything the more well-known men who write in a similar vein turn out. Stephen King is a master storyteller and a genius with dialogue, he can insert real humor in even the most otherwise terrifying of stories; but he can’t, like Kiernan or Brite, achieve that rarified, heightened atmosphere of dread and magic. His prose is sometimes fully in service of the story and afraid to add wild splashes of color. The closest male counterpart to writers like Kiernan or Brite that I’ve read is Peter Straub, and I still have some issues with his stories, which often leave me feeling as if more was written but removed.

I think it’s time writers like Brite and Kiernan achieved that parity in sales and recognition as well. From blurbs and other writings, like author’s blogs, it’s obvious that the men who are active and popular in the field recognize and agree with what I’m saying themselves. The responsibility lies with the readers.

I strongly recommend Lost Souls for those who love dark fiction, vampires. I also have confirmed for myself that I’m a fan of Poppy Z. Brite and will be seeking out more of her work in the future.

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