Book Review: “Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite


Poppy Z. Brite was a rising horror fiction writer at the time her collection of stories, Wormwood, was published. Also the author of horror novels Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, Poppy Z. Brite’s use of metaphor, poetic language, eye for detail, and uncanny character portrayal was quietly being lauded at the time, and Wormwood’s publication and reception would cement her reputation as horror’s pre-eminent practitioner.

Poppy Z. Brite’s narrative prose proved quite addictive, and her public readings were attended by a vast array of stereotypes, from chain and leather-clad biker types to gothic youths draped in black lace and fishnet stockings. Her self-proclaimed splatterpunk style was just what horror fiction needed at the time –– it was cardio-pulmonary resuscitation for a horror fiction genre in steep decline.

In Wormwood, the unflappable Brite weaves tales of subtle homoerotica, stereotype horror redux, goth culture, all in contemporary settings where drugs pass hands, loud guitars wail into the night, eyes peer from the shadows. The scenes in Wormwood are expertly rendered with the eye of a surgeon –– the story mapped like the body of a man washed ashore along the riverbanks, lying on some examining table and slowly being autopsied by an expert storyteller.

Poppy Z. Brite lulls you with her sensual use of metaphor –– “the neon lights in the red-light district were as red as desire.” She draws you in with her keen eye for detail, her words spun like soft gossamer, often showing you just how much she loves the darkness, and invites you to fall in love with it as well. Here she succeeds where her future published work would inexplicably fail –– short bursts of creative vision that reek of putrefaction, sex, alcoholism, and heartache.  All stories are quite essential –– they’re studies into life lived in feral conditions, lives quietly merging and hearts tenderly breaking while sanity ultimately seeks justification, ultimately failing, leaving characters at the crosshairs of insanity and greater, more profound suffering.

Never before has horror fiction been jostled into stirred wakefulness than in Wormwood, and many still proclaim its lasting influence. I am a dark fiction writer, and I would be hard-pressed to name another collection of stories that provided inspiration for my own career. Truly, Wormwood proved to be too great a feat for Brite to outdo, and her career has tragically met the fate authors who’ve stretched the limits of their craft share with bitterness. She hasn’t written a book in some time, and her works subsequent to Wormwood would pale in comparison to it, her voice echoing like that of a long-lost friend in this stellar collection, a monolith in literary horror fiction.

Some stories lend a greater emotional impact on readers, particularly the story entitled Missing and its study of a friendship with greater implications, subtle dialogue and use of smells to convey its message. Others, like The Elder, a story about a father who loses his child, invoke sympathy from the reader with characterization that readers can relate to.  Even yet, stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood, cater to an audience of fringe-dwellers and vagrants, young men and women living with unusual sets of circumstances, restless souls that choose lifestyles with little conformity to the norm.

If these stories don’t make you love the darkness just a little more with each read, nothing will. In fact, they’re so good that if you simply don’t love them, it’s more likely that you haven’t even read them.  She lends horror fiction a literary sensibility that sings like cutting-edge rock and roll, the music youth often use to escape the drudging of memory too painful to be summoned. Horror fiction’s supernova saw its cementing into the canon with this glorious collection. Read Poppy Z. Brite’s Wormwood. The darkness will never feel the same way again.

– Al Necro

Wormwood is available now on Dell Publishing. For more information on Poppy Z. Brite, visit her official website.


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