Fiction Review: “Last Wish & The Gulf” by Poppy Z. Brite
Reviewed by George Lea
It’s always somewhat ambiguous, when a writer you’ve admired and been informed by so intimately returns to writing after a long hiatus.
In the case of Billy Martin (writing here, as before, as Poppy Z. Brite), that hiatus was presumed by fans and writer both to be permanent, this duet of short stories a twin-forked tongue of Autumn lightning, surprising by dint of its occurrence alone.
For those familiar with my previous writings on Billy Martin’s work, you’ll know that my relationship with it is abiding and intense; it, along with that of Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and a handful of others, work that sustained me through an exceptionally morbid period of existence; an undiagnosed clinical depression and extreme social anxiety that had sustained since childhood, but that also kindled so much in my own imagination; taught me what obsesses me, what inspires, arouses and consistently fascinates. It is very much the case that, were it not for Martin’s work, I would not be here writing this now, nor would I have come to produce my own work, at least, not in the form it now occurs, which is something I am exceedingly grateful for.
You can therefore understand the degree of trepidation with which I approached these two stories, short as they are: fear of disappointment profound, perhaps somewhat absurd, but undeniable.
And, I’m pleased to report, groundless.
As already mentioned, the stories are exceedingly short and, by Martin’s own admission, not originally intended for publication. Rather, “Last Wish” in particular was intended to be a free tale as part of a package order from Martin’s own on-line store, representing the first piece of writing he has committed in some years.
It is therefore not a weighty thing, nor intended to be; almost fairy-tale light in tone and rhythm, though not in content:
Like many of Martin/Brite’s stories that have gone before, there is an immediate and effortless fascination with what might be termed morbidity; with death and pain and loss, but presented not in a manner that weighs itself down with its moroseness or with contrived profundity: it is a personal examination of what death can mean; what it can represent to those in particular circumstances; that it can be welcome and sought out, when all else has extinguished itself, when the inevitability of it is all that’s left. In that, it exhibits a characteristic inversion of traditional presentations of such subjects: here, death can be its own salvation and pain the marker of its success. Pain here is something desired, something to at least mark some poetry or meaning at life’s passing, rather than a grey and seamless shift into nothing. One might perceive a certain nihilism in this, one that might well prove alienating to those that seek some degree of conciliation in their fiction. But, to those of us that are accustomed to Martin/Brite’s particular flirtations with taboo or forbidden subjects (go and read Exquisite Corpse, find yourself sympathising with serial killers, turned on by scenes of sadism and graphic mutilation, and you’ll see what I mean), this is precisely what we expect and desire; presentation and exploration of the disturbing, the forbidden, but the undeniable, as though it were no more so than a tale of domestic frippery or a comedy of manners.
Here, death is death is death: it is stated as a natural fact, as inevitable and as universally understood. Pain, likewise; a human commonality and inevitability. But both as phenomena that can be interpreted and understood in different ways:
Here, a man desires both death and pain, but succeeds in only achieving the latter, demonstrating how the former can be not only welcome, but the only thing one might ever wish; for the dice to stop rolling, for the cards to exhaust themselves.
There’s a fairy-tale, mythic quality to the story, above its human morbidity; the manner of presentation light and flowing, its implications immediately and universally understandable, despite any reluctance in their acknowledgement.
To reiterate, it’s also very short; I doubt very much this represents Martin/Brite returning to writing in any significant capacity (though I sincerely hope that it does), nor will it likely satisfy those craving something more prolonged or dedicated (another Liquor book, Billy? Please?), but it is extremely thrilling to me on a personal level to see Martin/Brite’s work back on the shelves (as it were) in any form or capacity, especially when it still demonstrates all of the factors we’ve come to expect and adore.
“The Gulf” is a pleasantly contrasting piece, more akin to the “slice of life” tales found in Antediluvian Tales and similar latter day works than the more deviant work Brite/Martin made an early name for himself with:
Readers of the Liquor series will be pleasantly surprised to hear that this ties into those books, albeit tangentially: a life lived before, throughout and after Hurricane Katrina; the resultant tidal wave that demolished so much of New Orleans and its neighbours, the story is one of disruption, transformation and acceptance, not of the lot that is left after the tidal wave’s destruction, certainly not of the cold-handed ignorance of authorities that capitalise on it as a PR event before abandoning it for disasters new…rather in a wider sense; of the vicissitudes and tragedies that define life itself, of the transformations that result: the protagonist (a distant cousin of Gary or “G-Man” from the Liquor series) is no one in particular; a boy -and later, a man- with no particular fortune or tragedies to note; nothing to distinguish him barring the trials and transformations of a normal life.
Until the storm. Until the flood.
Which simultaneously destroys his life yet lends it a strange poetry; a chance and ephemeral encounter beforehand returning to haunt him, becoming a point of obsession and fantasy, but also of meditation: the means he uses to redefine himself.
It’s difficult to say whether the story is particularly hopeful; in truth, it’s far more complex than that: like many of Brite/Martin’s work, it isn’t interested in providing clean or easy answers where there are none; this is not only a situation where they would be inappropriate and insulting anyway, but also one that is extremely personal to the author, and which therefore demands due diligence, even when the ultimate outcome is acknowledging confusion (a factor that makes many readers and consumers of media in general extremely uncomfortable).
The stories represent, in many respects, the two poles of Brite/Martin’s fiction; the ostensibly conflicting parallels of interest, tone and obsession that previous work has explored. For my part, I sincerely hope that they represent the first of many more, but am entirely satisfied if they do not. If nothing else, they have inspired me to return to my back catalogue of the author’s previous work and indulge once again in what it originally aroused and inspired.
George Lea is an unfixed oddity that has a tendency to float around the UK Midlands (his precise location and plain of operation is somewhat difficult to determine beyond that, though certain institutions are working on various ways of defining his movements). An isolated soul by nature, he tends to spend more time with books than with people, consumes stories in the manner a starving man might the scattered debris of an incongruously exploded pie factory, whilst also attempting to churn out his own species of mythological absurdity (it’s cheaper than a therapist, less trouble than an exorcist and seems to have the effect of anchoring him in fixed form and state, at least for the moment). Proclaims to spend most of his time “ . . . feeling like some extra-dimensional alien on safari,” which he very well might be (apprehension and autopsy will likely yield conclusive details). Following the publication of his first short story collection, Strange Playgrounds, is currently working in collusion with the entity known as “Nick Hardy” on the project Born in Blood.