Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Poppy Z. Brite is a name floated around a lot in the gothic and horror genres of literature. Brite’s ultraviolent tales focus on gay and transgender characters living in the south. Some have deemed the work horror-erotica. Yet, this title does little convey the essence of Brite’s vision, which is both intricately complex and extremely disturbing.
Exquisite Corpse is often considered Brite’s greatest achievement. The novel follows four gay men. Andrew Compton is an English serial killer in jail for killing 23 boys and young men. He escapes by feigning his own death and meets up with Jay Byrne, another killer. While it never said exactly how many Byrne has killed, it is a lot. Byrne too enjoys young men, but unlike the Englishman, he delights in eating his victims. Together, the two set their sights on a young Vietnamese American boy by the name of Vincent Tran.
Tran has a fascination with all things dark and is getting out of a bad relationship with the possessive Lucas Ransom. Ransom has been diagnosed with HIV. He hates the world and cannot come to terms with his disease. Ransom takes to the airwaves as the persona Lush Rimbaud where he mocks mainstream American values. It falls on Ransom to save Tran from the predations of Compton and Byrne.
The title, Exquisite Corpse, refers to a unique literary style originated by the surrealist school of writing. This machination is used to describe a method of writing through collaboration where each writer will tack on their narrative to the end of the last, without necessarily knowing what came before. This particular story was not written in that way by multiple authors, instead the title gives a glimpse into the storytelling style itself, where the narratives of these four distinct men build onto one another to the most horrific and ferocious ending imaginable. In this way Brite’s subtext is clearly that the characters and their lives connect with each other in a way that they may not know and which may be unclear even to the reader.
The overtly violent, sexual, depraved acts described in Exquisite Corpse are enough to make even the most jaded and well-read fan of splatterpunk uncomfortable. There is no boundary. Nothing is taboo. Scenes of an erotic nature are not simply presented alongside the carnage, but rather intertwined until the devouring of intestines becomes sexual and a shared kiss becomes gore.
The vision is a skewed reality, bleak and depressing. There are no happy endings. No light at the end of tunnel. There is not even so much as a playful nod at the over-the-top nature of the narrative. Instead, it a gritty and filthy read which has more in common with smut than speculative fiction.
This type of writing is not for everyone. It is likely the reason why Poppy Z. Brite will never become a household name. Sexual orientation of the characters aside, most people cannot stomach, pardon the pun, a story where a man’s bowels are perforated by a screwdriver before he is sodomized, only to have attention given to the description of the rapist’s and victim’s fluids becoming one. Nevertheless for those who desire a unique and grotesque experience, there is really nothing else which compares to Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse.