I’ve declared 2018 as the year of disturbing fiction. Poppy Z. Brite had long been on my radar for extreme fiction, and I decided that the time had come to dig in. Which book would I start with? After reading this synopsis, the choice became obvious:
“To serial slayer Andrew Compton, murder is an art, the most intimate art. After feigning his own death to escape from prison, Compton makes his way to the United States with the sole ambition of bringing his "art" to new heights. Tortured by his own perverse desires, and drawn to possess and destroy young boys, Compton inadvertently joins forces with Jay Byrne, a dissolute playboy who has pushed his "art" to limits even Compton hadn't previously imagined. Together, Compton and Byrne set their sights on an exquisite young Vietnamese-American runaway, Tran, whom they deem to be the perfect victim…Ultimately all [the] characters converge on a singular bloody night after which their lives will be irrevocably changed — or terminated. Poppy Z. Brite dissects the landscape of torture and invites us into the mind of a killer. Exquisite Corpse confirms Brite as a writer who defies categorization. It is a novel for those who dare trespass where the sacred and profane become one.” [Goodreads]
Exquisite Corpse uses infamous serial killer/necrophile Jeffrey Dahmer and his crimes as inspiration and offers a recurring thread of re-telling. Anyone familiar with the Milwaukee monster’s case will recognize the chilling incident of the young man whom the police could have—should have—saved. Brite creates two characters to capture the vile darkness of the man, and he* sets both characters on the proverbial collision course.
The title has a backstory of its own. “Exquisite corpse” is a collaborative approach to writing (and drawing) in which each storyteller or image-maker adds their contribution without seeing what came before. The Surrealists came up with this in the early 20th Century as a way to create intuitive and bizarre work. As it applies to this novel, our four characters plunge through their lives without considering consequences and context. Like the best of Hitchcock’s suspense, we the readers see the connections about to be made and hold on, breathless, waiting for the inevitable impact. And Brite never holds back nor pulls his punches, writing those impacts with devilish—and gory—glee.
But Exquisite Corpse has a lot going on beyond the splatterpunk.
Brite creates a love story, a coming-out tale, a gay romance, and a serial killer thriller. What makes all those aspects work are the brilliantly realized characters. Brite writes four terrific stream-of-consciousness narratives (including one in first person—I love when a novel changes points of view or tenses for different characters). We’re given uncomfortably intimate insight into their sexual drives, vitriolic anger, and perverse murderous desires.
This novel is over-the-top in so many ways, yet Brite delivers what the story demands. Every bloody, meaty scrap of it. The sex and violence may be gratuitous to a casual reader—or one simply unprepared for this journey—but I see it as necessary every step of the way. Exquisite Corpse screams its honesty. As such, this is one of those rare and interesting cases in which I give the book five stars—or, as we say here at Darkness Dwells, Dweller Heads—but I can’t recommend it to the general public. This is a tale for tried-and-true gore hounds who crave graphic blood and sex. If August Underground and the Guinea Pig series appeal to you, go to Amazon and buy this book now.
*Brite’s preferred pronouns are he/him/his