Poppy Z. Brite, Are You Loathsome Tonight? (Gauntlet, 1998, 2000)

If the author's name or the punny title don't let you know that there is uncommon stuff to be found in Are You Loathsome Tonight? -- the second collection (after Wormwood, a.k.a. Swamp Foetus) of former wunderkind Poppy Z. Brite's short fiction -- the front and back cover illustrations by J.K. Potter will drive that point home. Fans looking for more pre-Liquor Poppy will be quite satisfied. Luckily, this is one of her few small press publications that aren't prohibitively expensive.

After a strangely disconnected "introduction" by Peter Straub and a preface which is actually a letter asking publisher Gauntlet Press not to publish this collection, we are instantly treated to the wierdness with "In Vermis Veritas," which features an introspective maggot who dines on humans in a slaughterhouse and quotes Francis Bacon. It was originally the introduction to a graphic novel and, the author promises, "is the first in a loosely linked series of fiction in which all the characters will be worms or larvae."

Negating the popular presumption that one must be either a Beatles person or an Elvis person, Are You Loathsome Tonight? shows a tendency towards both. "Arise" was inspired by an Alan Clark painting and stars Lennon and McCartney doppelgangers reinspired by their own deaths. Liverpool Fantasy, it's not, but Brite's skill at characterization shines. She seems to have a particular talent for (or, at the very least, an interest in) resurrecting dead celebrities through her fiction. The title story is a reference to a Presley hit from 1960 but it is less a story than an act of journalism. Peppered with quotations, it is original to this collection. More interesting is "Entertaining Mr. Orton," where the story of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell (whom I always envision as Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina since watching Stephen Frears' biopic Prick Up Your Ears) fuses with that of the new couple who moves into that haunted flat.

Recurring characters rear their heads throughout the collection. "Dr. Brite," the forenameless coroner of Orleans Parish (the author's "earliest career ambition"), makes her (his?) first appearance in "Monday's Special." "Pin Money" is a prequel to the novella "Triads" (co-written with Christa Faust) focusing on the history of Perique, "America" is a trifle (that Lost Souls fans will nevertheless appreciate) starring Steve and Ghost, and Trevor and Zach from Drawing Blood pop up in "Vine of the Soul."

Bestiality plays a supporting role in "King of the Cats," a fairy tale eroticized by Brite and David Ferguson. "Self-Made Man" was written in the midst of Exquisite Corpse and shows it. The gay necrophile cannibal theme seems to always allow room for further explication, and its extreme description still manages to initiate stomach upset. ("Saved," also co-written with Faust, also features Brite's notorious former specialty, though with slightly more restraint.)

But, stomach upset or no, Brite's talent for wordsmithery is undeniable and although the long form is undoubtedly her forte, she shows tremendous facility with shorter works. The only story that really doesn't work is the penultimate tale, an attempt at historical fiction called "Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz," but even that has a certain axe-wielding charm. Altogether, Are You Loathsome Tonight? showcases the author at the peak of her popularity, that period of time that, although she has thankfully developed past sensationalism-for-the-sake-of-sensationalism, so many of her fans don't want her to leave.

[Craig Clarke]

Read more about Poppy Z. Brite at her Web site -- which includes, among other things,
a complete character catalog -- and keep up with her daily exploits via her LiveJournal.