"Wormwood," Poppy Z. Brite

Pros: Rich and vivid; lush; short story format
Cons: Not for the weak of heart or stomach
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 8/26/2001

Poppy Z. Brite’s horrific short stories are nothing if not unusual. They are lush and vivid. Her world is not that much different from our own on the surface, which makes these stories all the more frightening. The stories in this book take place in the shadows where death is a physical thing, thin ghost-cats haunt abandoned rooms, beloved children are mummified upon their deaths, and the dead – sometimes – return for the living. It’s a world of Louisiana swamps, mud and muck, next to the oftentimes shabby finery of the city. It’s a world of pathetic, straggling fairs and abandoned, blood-painted churches. It’s everything we fear we’d find if we stopped to look in the corners of our own, somewhat brighter world.

Ms. Brite has a fascination with death – zombies, vampires, ghosts, corpses, mummies; it shows up everywhere. Her characters are unusual and wild, a little sad, with faults and foibles and frequent alcoholic tendencies. There’s blood and decay and a fair amount of sex – these stories aren’t for children or the weak of heart (or stomach). You’ll find all the forms of love in here, sometimes disturbing and sometimes saddening.

It’s impossible not to see and feel Ms. Brite’s world: “The shovel whacks her across the spine. The rotten smell billows around her, heavy and ripe: spoiling meat, rancid fat, a sweetish-sickly odor. The fall stuns her. She struggles in the gritty muck, spits it out of her mouth.” Somehow there’s always that contradiction: rot and the appearance of health; decay and sweetness. You’re never sure whether you should be afraid or relieved when the monster enters the room and stretches out its hand: is this an enemy? A friend? A lover? Does it bring happiness or death with the swamp-muck it trails behind it? It’s the ambiguity, the acceptance that goes hand-in-hand with resistance that informs her words so strongly.

Ms. Brite’s stories rarely work out the way we expect them to, but not because of some quick twist at the end. No, they start out in left field, in a place we have trouble understanding yet can see as plain as the shadowed murals of that abandoned church. There’s a touch of magic and the supernatural to almost every story, and sometimes it’s left unexplained, left for us to wonder about – without leaving us too frustrated.

These stories aren’t for everyone. The raw white bone and decayed flesh of them is too much for some. The straightforward depictions of sex bother others. The occasional scenes of homosexuality offend still others. If none of this bothers you, however, you owe it to yourself to check out at least a little Brite. The dank lushness of her world cannot help but cast a pall over your own.

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