Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Poppy Z. Brite is among the most well respected and renowned authors within the horror genre. During the 1990s, Brite’s narratives served to define the subgenres of erotic horror, splatterpunk, and southern gothic. The author’s bayou-centered tales fueled with explicit imagery of violence and sex are one of a kind. They represent a benchmark within the whole of speculative fiction.
Wormwood, originally published as Swamp Foetus, is a collection of previously printed short stories. These tales represent some of the author’s first forays into the genre of horror from the late 1980s and early 1990s. In many ways, the narratives are Brite in an unrefined state. There are tales here which contain New Orleans, ultra-violence, and are even overly sexualized. However, these stories are often presented in ways unexpected to the seasoned connoisseur of Brite’s literature.
The Stories of Wormwood include:
A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics of Poppy (Introduction by Dan Simmons)
Optional Music for Voice and Piano
A Georgia Story
Footprints in the Water
His Mouth will Taste of Wormwood
The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire
Calcutta, Lord of Nerves
The Sixth Sentinel
How to Get Ahead in New York
While all of these tales have their merits, three deserve particular attention and praise. “The Elder,” first published in 1986, is set around Christmas time. A woman, dealing with post-partum depression, finds that there are much worse horrors to bear. The imagery of these horrors is as good as it gets. Yet, it lacks the explicitly southern context or depictions of sexual acts Brite is famous for.
Another “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” contains the violence and sex, but as the name would imply is set on the Indian Subcontinent. Moreover, it is not vampires or ghosts our protagonist is dealing with, but rather the zombie apocalypse. The mixture of the traditional shambling dead with Hindu mysticism is refreshing.
If any tale in the text lives up to the reader’s expectations, it is the “Sixth Sentinel.” Written in 1993, it is one of the few stories penned after the author’s first novel, Lost Souls. It is a tale of love, loss, and obsession. Misdirection is key to the piece. Who or what is the ghost which haunts Rosalie Smith and why?
Central to all of these works is the theme of the outsider. Brite’s characters are ostracized by society or feel a need for self-inflicted isolation. It is through this lens that the author explores both the wickedness of cultural norms, as well as, the depravities that conspire to consume us when the veil of social order is removed. Most, but not all of these outsiders, fit within the goth scene of the late 20th century.
Wormwood is a fascinating collection. Everything that Brite encompasses and will become is featured in the stories presented. Yet, these ideas are not fully realized. It is a worthwhile read for those who love the horror erotica, southern gothic, and the splatterpunk subgenres of horror, but is not the genre defining classics of Lost Souls or Exquisite Corpse.