Exquisite Corpse

James Marcus reviews Poppy Z. Brite's book "Exquisite Corpse".

Published July 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

With a resume that includes such titles as "Drawing Blood" and "Swamp Foetus," the 29-year-old Poppy Z. Brite is a rising star in the world of horror fiction. However, "Exquisite Corpse" is the first of her books to be issued by a mainstream trade publisher. Has the author softened her approach in hopes of winning a wider audience? Not for a single blood-spattered page.

The protagonists of "Exquisite Corpse" are Andrew Compton, an English serial killer, and Jay Byrne, an American serial killer with an impressive collection of pickled and frozen corpses in his backyard. Not surprisingly, their activities make for plenty of throat-slitting, disembowelment and necrophilia. Cannibalism, too, gets its due, particularly when Jay feels like snacking: "He sank his teeth into flesh that had gone the consistency of firm pudding. He ripped at the edges of the wound, pulling off strips of skin and meat, swallowing them whole, smearing his face with his own saliva and what little juice remained in this chill tissue."

There is, to be fair, an unmistakable intelligence at work here, and a grisly sense of rightness when these two killing machines meet in a New Orleans gay bar and fall in love. But the unrelenting gore grows monotonous, and Brite seems deaf to the black-comic undertones of what she's doing. Instead she's drawn to the earnest and aesthetic side of serial murder -- there may be human viscera on display everywhere, but the book itself is oddly heartless.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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