Poppy Z Brite (1996)
“…his jaw ached from biting again and again into unresisting flesh. The bathroom was a charnelhouse. Most of his guest’s body was strewn across his bed, reeking and oozing.”
Sounds like a cheery little book, doesn’t it? Well, that’s horror queen Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse for you, a novel that is both consistently shudder-inducing and totally engrossing. I have never wanted to put a book down more, and I have also never been so completely unable to do so.
The novel centres around two serial killers, Andrew Compton – a necrophiliac who has escaped from a British prison – and Jay Bryne – a cannibal whose character was modelled on American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Brite follows the lives of both men to their inevitable meeting in New Orleans, a city whose decadence and squalor Brite describes in loving detail.
On meeting, each killer is at first the other’s intended victim, until they discover that they are equally matched. They become lovers and begin to kill together, each trying to come to understand the unique “tastes” of the other.
Brite spares her readers no moment of her characters’ violence or sexuality, which for the two killers, are completely bound up together. The novel is not purely from the perspective of the killers, which saves it from overly valorising them; Brite also places her reader in the mind of Andrew and Jay’s final victim, Tran Vinh, a young drug dealer.
It is through Tran’s character that we are taken into a subplot of Brite’s, which is very much concerned with the time in which she was writing. She explores the epidemic of AIDS in the early 90s, mostly through minor characters, although Andrew Compton has also contracted HIV from one of the young men he murdered.
This subplot follows a group of men that Tran knows, all of whom have HIV or AIDS. This group is headed by Tran’s ex-boyfriend Luke, who spends the novel raging against his disease, and bemoaning his loss of Tran.
It is when Brite takes the perspective of Tran that we discover arguably the most frightening thing about these men – their sheer magnetism. Their victims seem to be drawn to them because they are utterly fascinated by them.
Perhaps it is this quality possessed by Brite’s characters that makes it possible to get past the images of grotesque violence and explicit sexual behaviour. I’ll admit, part of it is pure fascination – the desire to find out what makes Andrew and Jay the way they are and what on earth they are going to do next. But what really keeps you reading are the rare moments of kindness shown by the killers, and the raw and even desperate humanity of the characters.
The Turn of the Screw
Henry James (1898)
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a wonderful ghost story which deals with a topic both most repulsive and fascinating to human consciousness – the corruption of childhood innocence by adult evil.
On first learning that we had to read the short novel as part of an English Studies module, I admit I was not at all excited given that I have always dreaded anything typically “horrific” as manifested in any cultural form. However, I must admit that James’s novel took me by pleasant and welcome surprise.
The finesse and elegance of the writing and the structure of the narrative immediately draws one in. The setting is suitably eerie – a company listen attentively to a ghost story narrated from an account given to the story-teller by a governess of whom he once made the acquaintance.
This woman’s experience of the presence of evil while taking care of two children at an isolated country house forms the main body of the text. However, even before we reach this point, the reader is struck by the dynamics of the opening that hint at some special relationship between the governess and the man to whom she has relayed her tale.
The almost uncanny ability of characters to guess the thoughts of others leaves the reader with a sense of wonder and awareness of the inherent subjectivity of narrative, as well as the difficulty of gleaning knowledge from that which is told from another’s perspective.
Despite James’ great craft in this respect, the reader is perhaps more intrigued by the beautiful children, Miles and Flora, of whom the governess is taking care. Corrupted, it would seem, by ghostly presences in the house, their behavior towards the governess and their housekeeper grows increasingly stranger as the story progresses, creating an escalating sense of tension. They are at first trusted by their governess, who eventually finds herself unable to control her fear and suspicion to an end that is as dramatic as it is strikingly silent.
We are as unsure of the children’s corruption as much as we are of the existence of the ghosts. The apparent neuroticism of the governess has repeatedly come under scrutiny from literary critics, yet I believe that she is aware enough of her own, concealed motivations to prove her honesty in this regard and win some respect from the reader.
The thrilling content of the story holds the reader from the beginning all the way to the dramatic close. And though typically concerned with intellectual issues, the tale is a master class in the art of narrative suspense. It is essential reading for any who wishes to relish the joys of a most excellent horror indeed this Hallowe’en.