Wednesday, February 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

About the Author

Poppy Z. Brite is the author of the novels Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, Exquisite Corpse, Courtney Love: The Real Story, The Crow: The Lazarus Heart, The Value of X, Liquor, Triads (with Krista Faust), Prime, Soul Kitchen; the novellas Plastic Jesus and D*U*C*K; and the short story collections Wormwood, Are You Loathsome Tonight?, Wrong Things (with Caitlin R. Kiernan), The Devil You Know and Antediluvian Tales. She is also the editor of the vampire erotica anthologies Love in Vein and Twice Bitten (Love in Vein II). She currently lives in New Orleans and often uses it as the setting for her novels, writing vivid descriptions of locales. In the early 00's, Brite grew tired of horror and wrote Liquor, a dark comedy about the restaurant industry, following it with the sequels Prime and Soul Kitchen. Unfortunately, she said of her last book, the collection Antediluvian Tales, "if not my last book ever, then my last one for some time." She is currently writing short non-fiction pieces and freelance editing. For more information on Brite, please visit her website, which is very detailed and personal, featuring a much more detailed biography than the one I just provided, pictures of places featured in her writing, pictures of her several adorable cats, detailed bios of characters, a huge list of every character she has ever written, her online journal and more.


Exquisite Corpse tells the story of four gay men. Andrew, an HIV positive, notorious serial killer (he killed 23 young men in 10 years) imprisoned in a London jail, escapes and flees to New Orleans. Jay, a predator of young gay men living in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Tran, a young Vietnamese man, who was recently kicked out of his parents' home when they found out his sexual orientation, seeks refuge at Jay's home. And Luke, Tran's ex-lover, who is HIV positive and still desperately in love with him.

The plot is more of a love story than a horror story. For its reputation of being one of the goriest novels ever written, I was surprised there are only a few chapters dedicated to murder. Only four men are killed by the serial killer lovers, not that it isn't enough, I was just expecting the novel to be a bloodbath from everything I heard about it. But when there is violence, it is brutal and disturbing. For instance, there's a scene involving a screwdriver which I can't forget and it makes me shudder just to think of it.

The love story focuses more on Tran and Luke than the killers, Andrew and Jay. The latter don't even meet until 3/4 of the way into the book, and are only lovers for a brief time before the ending. Most of the killing/cannibalism/necrophilia is done by themselves separately, at the beginning and ending. The middle of the novel is mostly dedicated to the explanation of the demise of Tran and Luke's twisted relationship.

Being told through the eyes of the killers, I found myself empathizing with them (much like the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and even liking them. Which Brite states in her biography as the reason Penguin declined to publish Exquisite Corpse, "I felt very uncomfortable with the mixture of a journalistic approach to the characters and a tendency to see them as admirable," her editor wrote to her. It's a unique approach to write a horror novel from the supposed villain's perspective and I enjoyed seeing why they killed, how they felt afterward, etc.

I liked the characters Andrew and Jay, but I loved Tran and Luke and desperately wanted them to get back together. Interestingly, Brite didn't like Tran, or any of her characters, writing this on her website,
"Readers seem to hate Luke and love Tran, which I'll never understand: Luke strikes me as self-pitying and caustic but ultimately sympathetic, whereas Tran is so incredibly stupid that you can’t understand why somebody hasn’t put him out of his misery. Exquisite Corpse wasn't any fun at all to write, not because of the "horrific, pornographic, unjustifiable" violence (to use some of the descriptions employed by publishers and reviewers), but because I really never warmed up to most of the characters, which is very unusual for me."
Tran is a bit dumb, but he doesn't come across as a moron, he simply seems young and naive. It is unusual that Brite didn't warm up to any of them, because I found them all likable.

The novel is only 240 pages long and I wish it had been longer, especially the part when Andrew and Jay become lovers. After that it ends too quickly. Instead, they could have had a long relationship and kill several boys together. Or it would have been interesting if Brite had written more about Andrew's life before he was imprisoned. Maybe she could write a prequel detailing his 23 murders.

I highly recommend Exquisite Corpse, especially if you like love stories combined with extreme gore.

Rating: 4/5


Anonymous said...

Im not sure if The Stepfather is considered a horror flick- but it was pretty awesome. I liked the new one better than the first-

Melissa Helwig said...

Yeah, I wanted to see that when it came out in theatres, but then I kind of forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me. I'll have to check it out when it comes out on DVD.

Will Errickson said...

I read this ages ago and loved it, more than her other novels. Her short story collection, WORMWOOD, is pretty good.

T.L.Bugg said...

I read this some years ago and enjoyed it, but not as much as Drawing Blood. Wonderful review, it made me want to dig her stuff back out again.

I had the pleasure of meeting her a few years back. She was wearing a seersucker suit. Needless to say it it was quite the kind of strange moment oyu only get in New Orleans.

Melissa Helwig said...

Thanks. I haven't read Drawing Blood but I'll check it out.

Wow that's so cool that you met her!