Death and the afterlife are two of the most commonly encountered themes in horror fiction. Apparitions and reanimated corpses are nothing new to fans of the genre; in fact, these images have been exploited so often that they’ve lost their impact. Then there are authors like Poppy Z. Brite, who manipulate familiar images in a way that transcends their meaning. This is put on display brilliantly and horrifically in his first compilation of short stories, Wormwood.
The collection’s original title, Swamp Foetus, is deliciously descriptive of the horrors concealed within. Brite’s writing is deeply steeped in its location: the dark swamps of the American South. Narrators creep through reeking, stinking bayous, full of dark mud that submerges and mist that shadows. What they find there destroys the reader’s idea of the body and the meaning of decay.
Most of the stories revolve around people on the fringes—queer musicians, confused spirits—who encounter destruction of the body or the secrets of death. The first two explore these themes in a more ambiguous manner, reflecting Flannery O’Connor’s sideshow nightmares. “Angels” tells of two traveling boys who encounter siamese twins, separated at birth, who demand to be rejoined at the shoulder; while “A Georgia Story” finds a boy rediscovering his lover, who has been imprisoned as a mad flesh eater in a roadside carnival. There is melancholy and loneliness to these opening tales, but they predict the corporeal terror that follows.
The story from which the collection comes, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood,” depicts two wealthy lovers who scour the world in search of sensation that will touch their numbed souls. Wild sex, absinthe, sadomasochism, drugs—nothing works, until they encounter death itself. Brite creates a post-Dorian Gray world of moral rot, where even corruption doesn’t matter; everything succumbs to the grave in the end. This theme of death engulfing life runs through several of the stories. “The Sixth Sentinel,” an atmospheric romp through New Orleans culture, is narrated by a ghost who tricks a young woman into his crypt; and “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” depicts a city overrun by the dead, and the person who discovers their hidden temples. Brite’s descriptions of putrefied bodies in these tales are baroque, horrifically wet, and extreme—you can smell them rising from the pages.
A healthy amount of horror authors during this period (Wormwood was originally published in 1993), such as Clive Barker, Edward Lee, and Kathe Koja, explored bodily destruction and transformation in their horror fiction. But few relished in it the way Brite does. His decay is sumptuous, the ultimate sensual experience. The protagonist of the title story longs for his chance to become a corpse by the end. There is despair in this longing, but it’s ecstatic as well. Brite has a reverential respect for death, and it makes his fiction hypnotic, scripture gurgled from the swamp mud.
Brite’s body horror is deeply rooted in the mind of his characters, many of whom are queer. One of the delights of his fiction is its frank approach to homosexuality—at a time when this subject was taboo (and really, it still is), his male characters portray love and lust for each other openly. The central characters of the title story are clearly partners, and explore sex with other men, eventually finding a lover who ruins them; a man in “Missing” mourns his friend’s death so greatly that he embalms him in order to keep the body for himself. Even if the stories deal with monstrosities of the flesh, these characters’ fondness for each other is not made to be grotesque. Some of the stories—particularly “Angels” and the grief-stricken “The Elder”—even reach honest pathos.
In the hands of a less talented writer, Brite’s stories would be simply repulsive. Those who don’t relate to such liminal characters may find them so regardless. But for readers who have felt lost in darkness, or wondered about the limits of their flesh, these stories read like dreams recalled from someone else’s mind. His prose stuns and intoxicates, though his temptations end in warning. Decay may enchant the protagonists, but the atmosphere of dread reminds readers of the dangers as well. Decadence comes with a price, the similarly queer Oscar Wilde reminds us. Brite takes that theme and buries it in the swamp mud of his native South, then revives it and makes it his own.