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From the Vaults: Horror Novelist Poppy Z. Brite Turns Stomachs & Opens Eyes

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This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of OUT.

Gothic, dripping-blood cover art sells Poppy Z. Brite’s first two mass-market paperbacks as full-on horror novels. And that they are, with malevolent vampires whose infants murder their human mothers at birth and young lovers threatened by familial ghosts. But they’re also homoerotic coming-of-age stories: The vampire antihero of Lost Souls is a gay teen, the passionate lovers of Drawing Blood two young men. “I thought it was wonderful the first time I walked into a grocery store and saw the paperback of Drawing Blood sitting there next to all the romance novels, “ says Brite. “And you know, here it is, this book with an explicit 14-page gay sex scene.”

Brite’s new novel is unlikely to wind up amid the Harlequins. Exquisite Corpse (Simon & Schuster) is American Psycho squared, plus AIDS, featuring a pair of HIV-crossed lovers and two unrepentant homosexual serial killers, one a Jeffrey Dahmer-like cannibal, the other inspired by real-life British necrophiliac Dennis Milsen. Brite’s original publisher, Dell, rejected the book as “too extreme,” she says. “It’s probably the most horrific thing that I’ve ever written.”

Indeed. The parallels to real events make the book’s stomach-turning descriptions hard to discard as mere fetishism. And Brite’s smooth, cool prose sets apart her killers—like her vampires and gay lovers—from the easy judgments of conventional morality. “Most true crime books are just these lurid things that present the serial killers as this unknowable monster,” she says. “It’s so much more interesting to try to understand them than just to write them off as an aberration because it’s too scary.” And if the aberration is also gay, so be it. To those who will inevitably accuse Brite of perpetuating the worst myths about gay men, she answers simple, “That’s why they call it fiction.”

The New Orleans native and resident (spare her the Anne Rice parallels, please) is now immersed in a nonfiction project, a biography of Courtney Love. Brite met the temperamental rocker after Love wrote to say she was a fan, thereby becoming an honorary member of what Brite calls “this subculture of freaks that I know, where it’s not taboo to be gay or to have a crush on your own brother or whatever.” As for herself, Brite has a husband of six years but also recently had “an intense relationship with a male-to-female transsecual, and gender was just really beginning to blur. Now I guess I like the term queer, because it includes those of us who don’t fit neatly into other categories.”

The same can be said of Brite’s novels, which challenge straight horror fans to accept homo heroes (and villains) and gay readers to buy into a chaotic world of moral relativism and supernatural evil. As for Exquisite Corpse, however nauseating at times, it’s most distinctly the world we live in, were true crime books sell by the fistful and everyone slows down to see the carnage along the highway. “I certainly admit that I want to see that stuff,” says Brite.  “I’m curious. I’m curious about what’s inside us, I always have been. When I was five years old I wanted to be a coroner.”

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