Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Vampire Chic: Revisiting Poppy Z. Brite's Vampires - by Louise Tripp

First of all, I want to say that I realize I am a little behind in talking about the Twilight saga. I should explain, but it's a bit embarrassing. You see, I was and am a bit in love with the series. Okay, more than a bit. For several months, I was so deeply engrossed in these books that I would actually spend time in therapy gushing over their contents and characters (my therapist being about the only other respectable, intelligent person I could find with whom I could share this mad addiction). I can see that just admitting to this has probably lost me the respect and attention of half my audience already. You're walking out the door as I speak. Shutting your browser. Writing me off. I've actually avoided the topic like the plague seeing how so much of the intellectual community just about seethes and writhes around at the mere mention of the series or their author. The few times I've let it slip about my rather severe addiction, I've gotten people coming out of the woodwork just to snark and sneer or to check if I was drunk or something.


Nevertheless, I thought I'd give stepping outside my anxiety a shot in order to clear the air and talk about a pre-Twilight vampire novel. Unlike the well-known, for-teens saga, this lesser-known book was brim full of gorgeous, sensuous sentences about New Orleans, the goth scene, North Carolina and some of the most vicious vampires ever to grace a page.

When I was just a teenager, I came across a blurb in the now-defunct (and much beloved) Sassy magazine on a budding writer whose former resume included being an exotic dancer and caring for the mice in a cancer lab. The red haired Louisiana-born, North Carolina-raised writer was named Poppy Z Brite and at the time, she was penning gothic horror novels with plenty of blood and gore – not to mention, gay sex. As a cult author, Brite mostly stayed on the indie fringe of literary fame – unlike Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous vampire series, flocks of teen girls did not swoon over her characters. Just the occasional weirdo, like me.

Lost Souls, my personal favorite Brite book, like the Twilight series (spoiler alert!), included a bloody birth that posed a threat to the womb – a vampire baby ripping its way out. But besides vampires and their spawn, the two don't share much in common. Brite, who has long-since given up writing about vampires in favor of queer chefs and pre-Katrina New Orleans, has always been able to turn a phrase that practically bled (no pun intended) with color and details so vivid, they're almost brutal. In Lost Souls, her debut novel, Brite takes us to New Orleans and fictitious Missing Mile, North Carolina (Brite herself spent part of her childhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and introduces us to a landscape of dirt roads and climbing kudzu, to lush descriptions of color and heat. Brite's writing is very visual. One early snippet tells of Mardi Gras in Louisiana:

"Strings of bright, cheap beads hang from wrought iron balconies and adorn sweaty necks."

Brite is also sardonically witty at times:

"The child who finds a pink plastic baby in his slice will enjoy a year of good luck. The baby represents the infant Christ and children seldom choke on it. Jesus loves the little children."

The title of Lost Souls refers to a band formed by two recurring characters in Brite's early novels: Ghost and Steve. Their band Lost Souls? plays goth music to a crowd of disenfranchised youth, often clad in black and obsessed with the supernatural (much like me in my adolescence). Ghost is clairvoyant – powerfully so – and Steve is deeply troubled, to put it mildly, just out of a relationship with a woman named Ann and sorting through his anger issues. Other characters of vital importance include a boy named Nothing who is bookish, sad and looking for somewhere to belong (though he hangs out with a crowd of bisexual punk rockers, who he occasionally fools around with, he still feels empty – oh, the plight of the goth boy!). There is Wallace, who is still coming to terms with the fact that his daughter is never coming back – not to mention that vampires exist. Finally, there are the vampires themselves: Christian, who owns a bar in New Orleans, drinks chartreuse and only reluctantly feeds on human blood. Zillah, Molochai and Twig, more malevolent vampires, also roam the fringe of the story, all too happy to kill for survival. In Brite's world, vampires do not become so by being "turned." Instead, they are a completely different species – sometimes able to mate with humans, always able to feed on humans, but not able to change humans into vampires.

These days, you can still find Poppy Z. Brite updating about her recent projects (writing and other) and her chef husband's restaurant at her Livejournal. Writer Harlan Ellison once said that her "talent gives off thermo nuclear vibes." Even now, long after her vamps have been put to rest, I'd have to agree.
Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

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