Have you read this book?
There are a few lists that I like to keep. Very informal lists. I’ve never even written them down. They exist only in my mind. Most of them have to do with artists. There is my Favorite Musicians list. (This one has probably changed the most dramatically over the past ten years or so, but that’s another article entirely.) Then there is my Favorite Director list. You know, people like Sam Raimi, Terry Gilliam, David Fincher…. And then there are my author lists. Most notably (for the sake of this review) my Favorite Horror Author list. (Another one that has undergone some serious renovations over the years.) Clive Barker used to top that list. Stephen King wasn’t far behind. And don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy both of those writers. But as far as authors whose next offering I cannot wait to read, well… I guess I would start with one of my all time faves, Joe Lansdale. Ed Lee’s not far behind. Then we have Charlee Jacob and Tom Piccirilli. Andrew Vachss. Dan Simmons. And, of course, Poppy Z. Brite.
So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I sat down and opened Ms. Brite’s most recent short story collection, this one from Gauntlet Press entitled Are You Loathsome Tonight? Would it be up to the standards I had come to expect from this gifted author of such titles as Lost Souls and Exquisite Corpse? Would it be as good as her other amazing collection, Wormwood (a.k.a. Swap Foetus)? Only one way to find out….
After one of the most original and interesting introductions to a collection — penned by none other than Peter Straub — and a hilarious little preface written in the form of a letter by a supposedly concerned citizen, we come to the first short story (and I do mean short – – only a page-and-a-half long) entitled “In Vermis Veritas.” Written from the point of view of a maggot in a slaughterhouse, this is the type of story for which the term “short and sweet” seems to have been invented. “Arise” is next, a story about an ex rock-and-roll legend who has faked his own death to get away from the life he had carved out for himself. When a fellow band member dies he suddenly finds himself able to create music again — with a little help from beyond the grave. Then there is “Saved,” co-written with Christa Faust whom Ms. Brite had also teamed up with for “Triads” which appeared in the epic horror anthology, Revelations. These two strike gold again with a strange and moving tale about a young man’s obsession with his grandfather’s gun and a bit of kinky sex that ends in tragedy. Another collaboration follows, this time with David Ferguson, for a re-telling of the fairy tale “The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and the Cat.” A fantasy story filled with talking cats and steeped in homo-eroticism. What more could a Poppy Z. Brite fan ask for?
Moving ever onward, we come to “Self-Made Man,” written for a Book of the Dead 3 that never came to be during the author’s Exquisite Corpse phase. Yep, you guessed it, a serial killer slash zombie story. Tasteless and gruesome? Oh, sure. A helluva lot of fun to read? Without a doubt. “Pin Money” revolves around a character first introduced in the aforementioned “Triads.” How does a young man, cast forth from his rich father’s house, deal with the new-found knowledge that said patriarch was responsible for his mother’s death? Read and find out. You won’t be disappointed. “America” is a story that isn’t a story, just a little opportunity to look in on Steve and Ghost, two of the main characters from Lost Souls, enjoy a little road trippin’ and some senseless banter between the two friends. I was more than happy to be given the opportunity. In “Entertaining Mr. Orton” we find out that ghosts can use some sex too. Maybe death isn’t as lonely a place it so often seems…
What if Ms. Brite had never become an author? What if, instead, she had decided to go to medical school, went on to a career as a coroner? “Monday’s Special” is a fun little piece which offers us a glimpse into that alternate reality. In “Vine of the Soul” we get to catch up with some of the author’s other previously established characters, Trevor and Zach from Drawing Blood. New Year’s Eve, 1999, finds the two men still in love and living in Amsterdam where a friend of theirs offers them a drug called “synthetic ayahuasca” which they then use to welcome in the year 2000. And then we come to my favorite story of the collection, “Mussolini and the Axeman’s Jazz,” a piece of “historical fiction” which centers around the assassination of the Archduke Ferdnand — an act which helped bring about the onset of World War I — a New Orleans serial killer known as the Axeman, and the misguided, bloody acts of retribution enacted by the Archduke’s ghost. And, finally, we reach the story after which the collection was named, “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” a piercing, unflattering look at the last days and the death of rock’s greatest legend, Elvis Presley.
Gauntlet has put together a wonderful volume here, with cover art by J.K. Potter and introductions to each story by the author, one that is not to be missed. It was a lot of fun catching up with old characters and meeting many of the new ones. Is it as good as Wormwood? Difficult to say as it is a very different collection — more diverse, not as consistently dark. All I can say for certain is that fans of Poppy Z. Brite — as well as those of dark fiction and good writing in general — will find Are You Loathsome Tonight? a more than satisfying reading experience.