In a totally unbeknown to me coincidence, I sat down to write this review today and noticed that many of my fellow horror bloggers have been participating in "Women in Horror Month". I didn't even know that there was such a thing, but it seems mildly serendipitous that I should be reviewing a book by one of the undisputed Queens of horror during in such a month, Poppy Z. Brite.
Now, before anyone, especially Z, jumps down my throat for that statement, allow me to qualify it a bit. PZB has, for many years, toted herself as a "gay man in a woman's body", a statement that she got TONS of shit for over the years. And currently Z is attempting to undergo the Female to Male transformation, HOWEVER, Z has even described that from a young age she identified as a "musical loving Queen". So weather as a biological woman, or as the gay man she has always been beneath her skin, I feel that the title of "Horror Queen" is one that PZB should wear with honor.
Now, that all aside, let's get onto the meat (oh God, that was a regrettable turn of phrase to use in context with this book) of the review.
If you strip Exquisite Corpse down to its bones, (another regrettable phrase, wow, I'm batting zero), it's a love story. A really, really, twisted love story. Even though the two lovebirds in question don't even meet until a little over 3/4 of the way through the book; it's clear, in retrospect, that everything that comes before their meeting is Z foreshadowing their eventual romance, they are each other's destiny if you will. And if you won't, then take it outside, your negativity is bringing down the room.
In a relationship that would put Bonnie and Clyde to shame, our protagonists Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne are two serial killers with the Atlantic Ocean between them. However, as they discover when they finally meet up, they are cut from the same cloth, as they are incredibly similar in their preferences. The main difference between the two - Andrew likes to kill boys, then screw them, then keep 'em in his flat until they smell, at which point he throws them in the Thames.
Whereas Jay likes to screw boys, then torture them to death, and then, finally, eat them.
WHAT A CRAZY RANDOM HAPPENSTANCE AM I RIGHT?!
However, it stands to reason that Jay must be a good deal craftier, because while we begin the book with Andrew wasting away in a British prison, Jay is rumbling the about the streets of New Orleans, picking up transient pretty boys. The first part of the book mostly parallels between these two, Andrew's goings on in England versus Jay's in America. And whilst Jay is busy seducing his dinner, Andrew is pulling off an elaborate jail break that involves fooling everyone into thinking that he's dead and then busting out of the Morgue and pretty much slice 'n dicing his way to the airport. And without spoiling much of the journey of the book for you - he ends up in New Orleans.
Beneath the plot line of Andrew and Jay's eventual love at first sight encounter, there are two subplots; the first of a Vietnamese boy named Tran who is interested in Jay, and has a rocky past including an abusive relationship with his psychotic, HIV positive, ex-boyfriend. The other sub-plot is the HIV/AIDS epidemic in general, to the point that it is almost a character in the work. A third serial killer, if you will. Most of the supporting characters are HIV positive in the work, and it does deal quite sensitively with the subject matter of the men who are slowly dying of the disease. And it's an interesting juxtaposition against the relatively quick, gory, deaths of Jay and Andrew's victims. And its all set against the already macabre associated backdrop of New Orleans (thanks Anne Rice), which is an apt enough location. This is essentially a modern Gothic novel, and what says Gothic better then the French Quarter and above ground mausoleums.
So on a psychological level, that was incredibly interesting. However, as you can imagine with a book about two serial killers in love it is extremely graphic. The details of the murders, necrophilia, and cannibalism leave nothing to the imagination - to the point that I occasionally felt squeamish. ME! I watch slasher movies while eating spaghetti with tomato sauce! So, really, that should tell you something.
Without sounding too prudish, I should also note that it is downright pornographic in points. If Z doesn't pull punches with the violence, then she sure as hell doesn't when explaining sex to the readers. And if I'm admitting that I got a bit squeamish with the gore, I will have to also admit that some of the sex scenes had me clutching at my pearls and lamenting my delicate modern sensibilities, in a full on southern accent.
But I don't want you going into the book, should you choose to read it, thinking it is nothing but "sex,sex,sex, graphic murder, eating people, some more sex" ... sure, there is plenty of that. But there is also plenty of interesting psychology tucked inside as well, especially since roughly a third of the book is told from the perspective of Andrew Compton, so literally, the mind of a serial killer. So, if you're interested in abnormal psychology, or serial killers this might well be your cup of tea. But, like when I reviewed Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted, I feel that it's only responsible for me to warn you that if you don't have a strong stomach you should put this book down, now, really.
It's okay, just set it down on the table and walk away. Nobody is judging you, we're all friends here.
So, if you feel like curling up this Valentine's Day with a really warped love story, then PZB delivers that. If not, I don't know, there's always Jane Austen or something. With or without zombies or sea monsters.
So until next time kids, play nice, tip your waitresses, you know the drill.