Thursday, May 21, 2015

COLD PRINT: Poppy Z. Brite's "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" and "The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire"

by Jose Cruz

I found it in my aunt and uncle's office. It was early afternoon, the combined light of the day outside and the eggshell glow from the bulbs of the rotating fan above giving the setting an innocuous, decidedly mundane atmosphere. But I knew that the book I held in my hands was anything but innocuous or mundane.

The cover looked fairly generic at first glance, emphasis placed on the author’s name rather than the artistic rendition to sell the book. Still, there was something patently forbidden in the pallid, scarred face that stared out off-center, its lips either submerged in the gummy waters of the bayou or covered by cross-hatchings of Spanish moss. Or sewn shut with black voodoo thread. And the title of the book itself: Wormwood. Biblical, ancient, full of whispery pestilence. And just below that an even more telling reveal, a line that explains this short story collection was previously released under the title Swamp Foetus. I was still in middle school when I picked up the book that sunny afternoon, but I still had enough knowledge of these matters to realize that this was horror as I had never conceived before.

It was then that I realized that this Poppy Z. Brite meant business and was, very likely, highly dangerous.

It was only early this year that I finally confronted the work within that forsaken text. My initial apprehensions of Brite being a tawdry peddler in the erotic horror paperback market had been stamped out in the intervening time between that initial encounter and now, appraisals and tributes to her wonderful and unique craft ever-intriguing me to reevaluate that hasty and paranoid assertion I had made as a foolish boy. Diving into Brite’s prose was a full realization of all the praise I had heard.

The renamed collection from Dell (1996)
In her short stories, Brite is audacious and merciless, the viciousness of her narratives honed to a keener edge by the refinement she brings to her work. To read Poppy Z. Brite is to immerse yourself in a cesspool of sensations both thrilling and horrendous: one comes to admire her delectable descriptions of cuisine and landscape with the same fervor as her portrayals of bodily mutilation and raw sexuality. Brite knows that horror is a genre of feelings both physical and emotional, her uniquely trained eye for unconventional imagery and metaphor perfectly suited to elicit frissons in the reader during the course of any one of her poetical tales. Two of them from later in the collection, “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” and “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire,” are the subject of today’s post.

Reading each story in Wormwood in its presented order allows the reader to pick up on many of Brite’s fascinations and recurrent themes. The underground Goth scene figures heavily in many, as does the rambling, shadowy streets of New Orleans, both of which Brite has called herself a resident. “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” therefore, surprises one in its departure from the familiar settings and preoccupations with art and love that came before it. Originally published for Craig Spector’s and John Skipp’s anthology Still Dead (1992), their follow-up to their successful Book of the Dead (1989), the story is another in a gathering of fictions taking place in a universe wherein George Romero's zombies have overtaken the world.

Mark V. Ziesing, 1992
The story is related to us by a nameless narrator (my favorite kind), the son of an American man and Indian woman who was rescued when the hospital he was birthed in burned to the ground, his mother’s bloody body left in the basement morgue after she died in labor. Early on Brite readily establishes her strengths in painting the most vivid pictures with her prose:

[My father] pressed his thin chapped lips to the satin of my hair. I remember opening my eyes—they felt tight and shiny, parched by the flames—and looking up at the column of smoke that roiled in the sky, a night sky blasted cloudy pink like a sky full of blood and milk.

After his despairing father drinks himself to death, the narrator returns to his homeland of Calcutta as a young man.

Calcutta, you will say. What a place to have been when the dead began to walk.

As he sees it, his home has changed very little with the proliferation of the living dead. The city was already a crawling mass of bodies wishing for death, so the sights of zombies eating the entrails of catatonic mothers through their vaginas and munching on the skulls of their children have only become a part of the greater squalor rather than upsetting the social norm.

Not having any responsibilities in a world gone mad (and living in a city that already was), the narrator spends most of his time wandering through the streets overcrowded with ramshackle buildings and watching the degeneracy unfolding around him to preoccupy his time. From the incinerated zombies tossed into the Hooghly River by the police to the rotting beggars who have scarcer meals than the zombies, the narrator witnesses it all with an impassive eye, loving his home all the more with every horrible revelation.

One of his mandatory stops during his trips is the Kalighat, the temple of worship for the goddess Kali. The narrator is entranced by the power and mystifying sex the goddess represents in her monstrous physicality and deathly adornments. As the narrator continues his walks and muses on the practical and metaphysical problems presented by the living dead (a perfunctory explanation linking their reanimation to a biologically-engineered microbe meant to eat plastic waste is the only one given, and briefly), he eventually finds that the labyrinthine streets of the city have led him back to the Kalighat come nightfall. But when he returns to the altar of his beloved mistress, he finds a different kind of congregation gathered in the temple.

I saw human heads balanced on raw stumps of necks, eyes turned up to crescents of silver-white. I saw gobbets of meat that might have been torn from a belly or a thigh. I saw severed hands like pale lotus flowers, the fingers like petals opening silently in the night.

Most of all, piled on every side of the altar, I saw bones. Bones picked so clean that they gleamed in the candlelight. Bones with smears of meat and long snotty runners of fat still attached. Skinny arm-bones, clubby leg-bones, the pretzel of a pelvis, the beadwork of a spine. The delicate bones of children. The crumbling ivory bones of the old. The bones of those that could not run.

These things the dead brought to their goddess. She had been their goddess all along, and they her acolytes.

This macabre diorama, combined with the animation of the sinuous statue itself, compel the narrator to run from the scene back to the ruins of the hospital. He lowers himself into a cradle of ashes, returned to the dust from whence he was born as the dawn of a new day arrives.

Brite’s writing demonstrates such a potent musicality that when paired with these gruesome sights it creates a symphony of terror. “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” is a narrative of tensions and contradictions. The city is redolent both with beauty and misery; the living dead both of equal standing with the human citizens and perversions of humanity; Kali acting as both a guard of the old faith and the vicious herald of the New World Order. The best writers have the power to take your breath away, to make you envious of their gifts, to keep you thinking long after you’ve finished that last sentence. Poppy Z. Brite does all of this with “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” and had it been her only story the world could only be so thankful to have at least gotten this little masterpiece from her.

“Calcutta…” presents a vivid depiction of a social horror eating away like a cancer, and in this way it is similar to “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire,” but the latter tale is more secretive where the former was illustrative, dwelling more in the pockets of darkness in between the “candyscapes of nighttime lights” than in the glaring light of the unflinching sun.

St. Martin's Press, 1991
Originally appearing in Dead End: City Limits (1991) edited by Paul F. Olson and David B. Silva, “The Ash of Memory…” is a tale of the modern city, or what would at first appear to be the modern city. The stink and spice of India is left behind in favor of the steely cool of the American metropolis (its exact name is never given) where our narrator, Jonny, works as head chef for the posh hotel restaurant the Blue Shell with his aspiring artist friend Cleve. Jonny’s girlfriend Leah spent a passionate night with Cleve for which the couple is still feeling the emotional shockwaves from, their intimacy gradually crumbling in the wake of the infidelity. Not only that, but Leah has found out she is pregnant. The baby could belong to either man.

Conflicted by his feelings for both Leah and Cleve, Jonny continues to kick back and listen to jazz records with Cleve and comfort Leah in her times of need even when she makes her resentment of his boyish sweetness known to him. When she gets an appointment with a private doctor in a run-down neighborhood to carry out the abortion, Jonny decides to accompany her despite his fear of the decrepit district.

Other parts of the city were more dangerous, but to me the old factories and mills were the most frightening places. The places where abandoned machinery sat silent and brooding, and twenty-foot swaths of cobweb hung from the disused cogs and levers like dusty gray curtains. The places that everyone mostly stayed away from, mostly left alone with the superstitious reverence given all graveyards. But once in a while something would be found in the basement of a factory or tucked into the backroom of a warehouse. A head, once, so badly decomposed that no one could ever put a face to it. The gnawed bones and dried tendons and other unpalatable parts of a wino, jealously guarded by a pack of feral dogs. This was where the free clinic was; this was where certain doctors set up their offices, and where desperate girls visited them.

There’s a telling reveal in Jonny’s words about the head that “no one could ever put a face to it.” This description not only speaks to his fear of the city’s erosion of identity and how a distinct human body can be reduced to a nameless pile of remains that no one can mourn but also his fear of the random, anonymous incidents themselves. Early in the story Jonny speaks of “the grand melodramatic murders” that the city hosts, but one never gets the impression that Jonny speaks of these things as products of human nature. The atrocities he describes in the quoted passage seem to be attributed to a greater and more arcane horror, victims erased from existence by the very environment rather than some mortal perpetrator. This notion is lent more credence as the tale advances.


When Jonny and Leah begin arguing after having difficulty finding the doctor’s office, Jonny runs off, his impotent rage leveled only by his blind devotion to Leah, leading him to make sure that she remains in earshot as she gives chase to him. But Jonny ends up losing track of her, finding evidence that Leah had taken a spill outside an alley before seemingly disappearing from the spot. This is where Brite demonstrates a touch for queasy suspense, ratcheting up the tension as Jonny sees a worn sign pointing down the alley marked with their destination.

But whereas the couple had been searching for “127 Payne Street,” the sign indicates that he has found “Pain Street,” and the number itself is scratched into the face of a yawning metal door leading into one of the ghostly factories. There he discovers the corpse of a young girl “half buried and half dissolved into the grime and ash of the factory floor,” one of the miserably impregnated who sought the aid of a doctor years ago and only found death. Jonny quickly sees that Leah has come to a similar end herself: she’s been run through with one of the towering machine’s gleaming, organic hooks and lifted into the air, the desiccated fetus ripped from her abdomen. The sight leaves Jonny maddened and haunted in the tradition of the Lovecraftian narrator, but any melodramatics are played down with Brite’s eloquent style.

I no longer thought I knew something about love.

Now I knew what love was all about.

A reprint from Penguin Books (1995)
Like “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire” leaves off with all its horrors intact, the narrators left to study their lives—or whatever may be left of them—as the dark forces of the unknown continue their work and propagation in the background. The latter story would make a favorable pairing with Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train,” another tale concerned with the bloody black magic of the old ways literally existing underneath a veneer of modernity. While Barker gives his terrors a face, Brite leaves her story ambiguous. Who or what is controlling these machines? Are they sentient? How did they come to be? Like many things of this earth, there’s more to it than anything Brite or Jonny could have dreamt up in their philosophies.

Both of Brite’s stories are in the end concerned with the unloved and the unwanted. The narrator from “Calcutta” is the product of a fatal birth, one he believes his mother may have despised him for, and an undesirable child is the whole driving force in "The Ash of Memory...". Though separated by hundreds of geographic miles, Leah and the catatonic mothers of India are in their hearts one in the same, victims of circumstances both within and without of their control, food for monsters. It shows us that in spite of our differences, horror is a tie that binds us.

Brite now identifies as Billy Martin, and you can find his blog here.


Peter Enfantino said...

Another great post, Jose! I can remember the "old days" of the World Fantasy Cons of the early 90s that John and I attended. Poppy, Kathe Koja, and Lucy Taylor had created quite a bit of discussion about their frank, sexually-charged fiction. Seems like a long long time ago now.

Jack Seabrook said...

Jose, thank you for performing a great service. Now I know that I will never read anything by Poppy Z. Brite or Billy Martin, though the only Billy Martin I know managed the Yankees and died too soon.

Jose Cruz said...

Peter: "The Ash of Memory..." was published the year I was born. There. Does that make you feel younger? ;)

I'd love to make it out to WFC one of these days. There aren't any real cons that I know of down here that cater to the literary set.

Jack: Ahh, that's too bad.