First published back in 1998, US Author Poppy Z Brite’s anthology ‘Self-Made Man’ (titled ‘A You Loathsome Tonight?’ in the US) was a collection of (mostly previously published) short stories that was published to welcome in the turn of the century.

The collection begins with a ten page introduction by US author, Peter Straub, in which he praises the unpredictable writing skills and unashamedly brazen attitude of Brite, alongside a litany of quotes from various pieces of literature that are clearly meant to emphasise the talents of the author.  However, if I’m honest, it comes across as a bit too pretentious, feeling more like literary snobbery than a justified introduction to a short story collection.  But that could just be me?

The collection contains the following short stories:
In Vermis Veritas - 2 Pages
In the slaughterhouse a maggot dines on another carcass.  However, this particular larvae is a veritable connoisseur of mortality.  It chooses only the finest meat to gorge itself on.  And fear makes by far the most exquisite preserve for such fine dining…

Originally written as an introduction to Matthew Coyle and Peter Lamb’s graphic novel ‘Registry Of Death’ (1996), this uber-short piece of fiction offers a brief glimpse from the perspective of a particularly refined maggot as it gorges itself on the dead carcasses on offer.  The short is laced with delightful black comedy along with just a touch of the grotesque to keep this fast-firing piece of flash fiction energetic and utterly engaging.  For its short length, this is a particularly enjoyable read.

Arise – 15 Pages
Terry Cobb spent his nights drinking African beer, smoking the local ganja and doing very little else.  He still had plenty of money, allowing him to continue living a meaningless lazy existence, without the bother of the outside world.  Since everyone thought he had died in a plane crash back in 1985, the once world famous rock star could now just lie back and enjoy the quietness of life.  That is until he hears the news that fellow band member of the Kydds, Eric Matthews, had committed suicide in his New York apartment.  And then the following morning a Federal Express parcel arrives for Terry Cobb, with an accompanying letter from Matty.  Now there’s something that Cobb must do.  And very possibly, it might end up being the come-back that he never dreamed would be possible…

Written for the anthology ‘Imagination Fully Dilated’ (1998) in which writers attempt to verbalise a collection of paintings by US artist Alan M Clark, Brite’s offering is an oddly mild-paced story that toys around with the ‘faked-death’ premise with a weird drug-induced twist.  The story as a whole is classic Brite, with that rock ‘n’ roll drug-haze undertone all within a dreamlike plot.  It’s intriguing and atmospheric…but sadly offers up very little else.

Saved – 17 Pages
For Billy his Granddad’s old Luger was more than just a family heirloom, it had become an object of fantasy for him.  And now that his dear old Granddad and Momma had died, the semi-automatic pistol had come to him.  And now he had almost everything to bring his fantasies to life.  He just needed one more thing.  A completely passive girl to play along with in his sexual role-playing.  But taking a loaded weapon to bed with you was always going to be a dangerous game to play…

First published for the ‘Young Blood’ (1994) anthology, the short was co-written with fellow author Christa Faust, who later went on to co-write with Brite for their lengthier story ‘Triads’ which appeared in Douglas E Winter’s anthology ‘Revelations’ (1997).  In ‘Saved’ the sexually deviant story plays with the simple idea of a fantasy which has a particularly dangerous element to it.  A dangerous side that quickly turns nasty.  The maniacal madness of the last few pages is what really make the short; with craziness and bloodshed thrown about with absolute reckless abandonment.

King Of The Cats – 9 Pages
Nick was one of three young apprentices who worked for the miller and his childless wife.  The other two apprentices, Simon and Oliver, argued constantly about who would inherit the mill following the miller’s death.   With the miller now getting on in years, he duly sets a challenge for his three apprentices: whoever brings him the finest horse will inherit his mill.  And so the boys set off on their separate ways, each in the hope of obtaining the perfect horse.  But Nick quickly becomes lost and meets with an exquisite cat, who declares that he is the King of Cats.  Knowing what the young miller’s apprentice was searching for, the cat offers Nick the chance to choose a horse from his fine stable, if only he serve as his faithful servant for seven years.  An offer that Nick readily agrees to…

Co-written with David Ferguson for the ‘erotic fairy-tales for gay men’ anthology ‘Happily Ever After’ (1996), Brite’s short, which was originally titled ‘The Poor Miller’s Apprentice And The Cat’ is a mildly sexually-warped version of the Brothers Grimm short story ‘The Poor Miller’s Boy And The Cat’ (1884).  The end result is a strange fairy-tale with a near-nonsensical plot which incorporates a mildly gay undertone as well as one particular dream sequence that details disturbing images of bizarre man-cat sodomy.  To be honest, the short is a little too rainbow-weird for my tastes.  For some it may well be a joyfully imaginative gay romp.  However, if I’m quite honest, for me it’s just mind-bogglingly odd.

Self-Made Man – 22 Pages
It all began for Justin when he shot his stepfather, Reno. His mother was quick to follow.  Their deaths marking the beginning of a new frame of mind for Justin.  And then the young, thin and pretty boys followed.  For a whole year he tried to bury the urge, but the knowledge that he was capable of murder never left him.  And what’s more - no one else knew.  But then he woke to find the mutilated corpse of a young boy on his bed.  He knew he’d done it.  It has his name all over it.  But he simply couldn’t remember any of it.  And with that, so his secret life blossomed once again.  His art – immersed in the beauty of death.  And so it went on, until he met nineteen-year-old Suko at The Wounded Stag in West Hollywood.  From that moment, Justin’s heart was tied to that of another.  But his fear that true love would one day leave still remained.  And it would eventually consume him…

Written for the ‘Book Of The Dead 3’ anthology that never saw the light of day, Brite’s short eventually saw publication in the ‘Dark Terrors’ (1997) anthology.  It was penned during the period when Brite was writing her novel ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (1996) and envelops the Jeffrey Dahmer influence to an even greater degree.  Indeed, the short story is a pretty darn close re-working of the real-life crimes, with many of the horrifying details brought to visceral light, delightfully squirming around in the blood-soaked guts of what happened.  Brite staggers the story between two parallel running points of view – that of Justin and his eventual young lover Suko.  Here Brite builds on the strange emotional development of these two out-of-the-ordinary characters, until the short comes crashing down upon a slightly predictable but well-delivered twist ending.  This is certainly one of the better stories in the collection – if not the highlight.

Pin Money – 8 Pages
When Nicole becomes pregnant with the prolific opium importer Tom Lee’s child whilst living in Shanghai, the French immigrant decides that it is best to give the wealthy drug baron what he wants and raise the child with him.  A boy that was named Perique by his father.  The very same father who arranged for the murder of Nicole using a hatpin that is forced through her nostril and into her brain.  A horrific murder that is performed shortly after delivering Perique.  A callous and cold-hearted act that Perique has never forgotten…or forgiven…

Written as a prequel to Brite and Christa Faust’s short ‘Triads’ from Douglas E Winter’s ‘Revelations’ (1997) and published for the first time in the September 1997 issue of ‘Rage’ magazine, Brite’s short ‘Pin Money’ is more concerned with setting down the backstory to the character of Perique than it is in delivering its own independent tale.  It’s very much something for the diehard fans out there.  For everyone else, it’s a bit plain.  A bit lacking in substance and a bit too enwrapped in itself.  Indeed, other than offering an insight into Perique, there’s little else involved here; just a somewhat predictable and unadventurous take on revenge and comeuppance with a slightly horror twist thrown in.  

America – 4 Pages
They had been on tour for upwards of a month now.  Just the two of them – Steve and Ghost.  Collectively known as ‘Lost Souls?’.  And now they were making their way in their ’72 T-bird, on to their next show in Flagstaff, Arizona.  They had themselves a thirty-dollar quarter bag of pot and the company of each other to keep them going.  That and Steve’s little story regarding a man-headed cat…

First published in Amelia G’s Rock ‘n’ Roll erotica anthology ‘Backstage Passes’ (1996), Brite’s uber-short snippet of an offering is little more than a mildly-amusing joke wrapped up in a weak excuse to bring back two of the author’s much-loved characters - Steve and ghost from
Lost Souls’ (1992).  There’s nothing else really in the short, other than basking in the glow of Steve and Ghost for just another minute or two, whilst enjoying a somewhat smutty joke told by Steve.  End of.

Entertaining Mr. Orton – 11 Pages
In 1967, in their poky flat in Islington, tensions are once again running high between the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell.  But Halliwell’s finally had enough if his lover’s blatant infidelity.  Joe’s diary tells of too many passionate encounters.  And so he brings the hammer down on him.  Nine times in total.  Enough to drench the sheets in blood.  And then he swallows twenty-two Nembutal and joins his dead lover in eternal sleep.  But when twenty-nine years later, the gay lovers Clive and William move in to the very same London flat, the memories of the sweat-drench lust which ended in such brutal violence are once again awoken…

Originally written for William J Mann’s gay supernatural anthology ‘Grave Passions’ (1997), Brite’s tale of a brutal homicide between two lovers that comes back to haunt the next gay couple to move in to the same cramped flat in London, turns out to be strangely addictive reading.  Orton’s blasé approach to his lover is entertaining in its shallow-campness, which is cut short rather abruptly by the brutal murder that soon follows, marking a powerful end to the first half of the short tale.  The following half is drenched in another heavy dose of gay sex, to form the obvious catalyst for the reawakening of the passionate murder.  Okay, so it’s not exactly the most inspired and original of shorts, and one which is quite quickly forgotten afterwards.  But it still has its ‘haunting-charm’.  And it’s no doubt down to the characters that make it work so well.  And it really does work.

Monday’s Special – 4 Pages
In the past she’d thought about becoming a writer, but now she was glad she’d chosen the safer option of a coroner.  And for Dr Brite, the arrival of a young male’s body that had been found dead on the street was just another day at the office for her and her favourite assistant, Jeffrey.  And Detective Linda Getty (who had arrived with the cadaver) was about to find out how odd peoples deaths can turn out to be.  For this unlucky punk, the contents of his stomach are enough to tell their own little story…

Written specifically for the anthology, Brite’s short little tongue-in-cheek imagining of a different career path is laced with black comedy and gruesomely visceral descriptions of an autopsy throughout its four pages.  Unsurprisingly, Brite has a little harmless fun in her new job role; slicing up a corpse and going all Quincy M.E. for the final smug little twist.  It’s fun and witty with that black-horror twist to it that you’d expect from a piece of Brite’s writing.

Vine Of The Soul – 10 Pages
Amsterdam in December is bitterly cold.  And that’s exactly where Trevor and Zach found themselves.  With Zach’s computer skills, there was money for the taking in the wealthy city.  And lots of it.  However, it was now the last night of the millennium.  New Years’ Eve 1999.  And the two lovers had a good night ahead of them.  Furthermore, when their fashion designer friend, Franzz Quaffka, turns up, a change of scenery to the gay man’s luxury flat offers up the chance to try out a new hallucinogenic drug.  All this on the night where the computer systems are predicted to go down the drain.   And from there on, it’s just one hell of a night to remember…

Yawn yawn yawn.  Here we have Brite bringing back her apparently much-loved gay couple from the novel  ‘Drawing Blood’ (1993) – Trevor and Zach.  Written for Sarah Champion’s anthology ‘Disco 2000’ (1999), Brite’s short is so painfully ‘Poppy Z Brite’, with its drugs, gay sex, and annoyingly sensitive and quirky characters.  Expect pretty much nothing to happen except the author to wallow in a pit of her own literary juices.  It’s like taking any other Poppy Z Brite novel, removing the entire plot, and what’s left is the nauseating lives of these clicky characters.  Oh well…move on…

Mussolini And The Axeman’s Jazz – 26 Pages
It all started back in 1914 when the Archduke Francis Ferdinand took his wife, Countess Sophie, to Sarajevo where they would celebrate their fourteenth wedding anniversary together.  But their time spent in the capital city was far from what the Archduke had hoped.  A failed assassination on their lives sparks off a feeling of alarm.  But it’s not long before the second attempt on the couple’s lives is met with success.

Four years later and Ferdinand has returned to New Orleans as a wraith, where he encounters the former Police Detective, forty-three-year-old Joseph D’Antonio.  Drunk and down on his luck, D’Antonio nevertheless recognises the Archduke for who he is.  And as he listens to the wraith’s tale of woe, the horrifying truth of a war that is still being fought, even after death, gradually convinces the once respected Detective to become involved.  And with this simple act, the bloodshed will continue.  Driven from the grave, the streets of New Orleans will flow with the blood of revenge…

First published in Edward E Kramer’s ‘Dark Destiny: Proprietors Of Fate’ (1995) anthology, the short is perhaps Brite’s strongest addition to her anthology.  Once again delving her hand into some historical fiction, Brite engineers an elaborate plot whilst (quite imaginatively) connecting the horrific axe slayings that plagued New Orleans back in 1918 and the fate of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand that eventually erupted into World War One.  However, Brite maintains a tight leash on her imaginative and inspired storyline, setting down an almost Clive Barker-esque tale that swings around the playing-fields of a spiritual war which has crossed over into our physical world via the help of a former Police Detective.  As crazy and condensed as it sounds, it really does work as a story.

Are You Loathsome Tonight?
– 6 Pages
Back in the day before Elvis Presley was crowned the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the fashion conscious trend-setter would frequent a particular clothes retailer seeking out the colourful garments that he would later be recognised by.  And it’s in that very shop, that the shopkeeper kept an eight-foot albino python in a tank by the shoes.  A peculiar snake that fascinated Elvis.  And one that would later find itself replicated inside the King’s stone cold corpse…

Written by way of an experimental exercise in using words to paint a visual image upon the reader’s mind, Brite’s peculiar, almost Quinton Tarantino-esque, short does little other than to set a mood and paint a slightly-tasteless picture of Elvis’ slippery downfall.  It’s short and stuttering approach is more about creating blocks of imagery for the reader rather than a start-middle-and-finish to a tale.  In fact, there’s really little else in the short slice of Elvis life other than the clinging aroma of a legend’s dirty life behind the stage door.  It does a job.  Not much of one, but in its own creative way it’s nevertheless somewhat successful.

The anthology concludes with an eight page afterword penned by fellow author Caitlin R Kiernan entitled ‘…And In Closing (For Now)’, in which Kiernan offers up a flattering ‘This Is Your Life’, taking the reader in a flurry through Brite’s writing career whilst lovingly examining numerous aspects of her work.  The afterword is as complimentary and gushing as you’d probably expect it to be, and does end the anthology on a note of mild worship.  One that adamant fans of Brite’s work will no doubt relish almost as much as they do Brite’s own work.  Perhaps I’m just down on the author’s work because I don’t quite get the tedious devotion she has for sex, drugs and fetish-laced-horror – all wrapped up in love, lust and New Orleans.  Clearly many people get a kick out of Brite’s work.  I’m almost definitely in the minority within the horror genre’s readership.  And I must admit that I do at times see glimmers of cunning and clever literary skill – such as with ‘Mussolini And The Axeman's Jazz’.  But it’s too few and far between for my liking.  Give me Edward Lee, Richard Laymon or Graham Masterton any day!

© DLS Reviews

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