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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

The Devil You Know
Poppy Z. Brite
Subterranean Press/ 200p / $40 (Limited Hardcover; a lettered edition is also available)
ISBN: 1-931081-72-7
February 2003

Cover Poppy Z. Brite is gaining maturity as a writer and you can't help but wonder where she will be in another twenty years or so when she's Harrison's age. Right now, with this third collection of short stories she's at a crossroads and that is a dangerous place to be. As bluesman Robert Johnson wrote, "Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride.../ Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by" -- there's always the chance that a new path will leave you less noticeable than before. Those who identify Brite only as a goth vampire queen or empress of extreme have always underestimated her talents, but they did buy books.

They'll still be satisfied with the more fantastic fiction here. "The Ocean," is a fable that goes back to Brite's youthful infatuation with rock-gods and combines a faint echo of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer with the Greek mythological theme of Maenads. Title story, "The Devil You Know," was first published in Imagination Fully Dilated Volume II, and based on the art of Alan M. Clark (which, in turn, is used for the cover of this collection). In it Brite ties the Devil, his cat, and the racism of New Orleans' Mardi Gras krewes together. "Lantern Marsh," was appropriately spooky for its first publication in the Halloween-themed October Dreams. "Pansu" is a delightfully weird demonic possession story set in a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles. There are also two tales set in fictional worlds created by others. "Burb, Baby, Burn" takes Mike Mignola's Hellboy character firestarter Liz Sherman back to her poignant beginnings. The interesting but odd "System Freeze" belongs in the film universe of The Matrix.

Brite's current preoccupation is, she's said, with "writing honestly about New Orleans, which I suppose you could say is a subculture in and of itself, made up of various sub-subcultures of race, class, occupation and such. But I think I'm writing about much more 'ordinary' people than I have before...Many of my characters are still gay -- which for me is rather like saying 'many of my characters are still breathing' -- but they're just regular folks..." There are a trio of stories on the "ordinary" branch of her crossroads-collection. The regular folks gay couples in them are more oriented toward the subculture of restaurants than any other. "Nothing of Him That Doth Fade" is a gloomy, yet somehow heartening existential love story. A character in "Bayou de la Mère" has lost his faith and still bears the scars of religion. A young man finds his place, rather amiably, in the world in "A Season in Heck." (John) Rickey and G-man (Gary Stubbs) appear in both these last two stories. A long-time gay couple, they are chefs who co-own a New Orleans restaurant and are the main characters in Brite upcoming (2004) novel Liquor. Their younger years are featured in The Value of X, a short novel recently published by Subterranean Press.

Four stories make up a third tangent. The protagonist here is Dr. Brite, the coroner of Orleans Parish. The author's self-confessed alter-ego, Dr. Brite, loves to eat fine cuisine. Dr. Brite's twin passions, food and forensic pathology, coalesce somewhere just outside the commonplace. "Poivre" is an M.F.K. Fisher-type meditation on a restaurant rather than a story. "Oh Death, Where Is Thy Spatula?" is a remarkable combination of character, giggles, chills, and voudon. "Marisol," is a revenge story of sorts with an ending few coroners would approve of. The most experimental of the stories is "The Heart of New Orleans". It comes closest to the model of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, a standard the writer has stated she wishes she could equal. The wry and loving look at New Orleanians is there and some of the humor. But Dr. Brite is not an Ignatius J. Riley. Her sadness is not cloaked with ego and verbosity. She's also a character who deserves further exploration in the future.

Even the most "normal" of the stories here are still slightly skewed from conventional culture. She may have a new direction, but The Devil You Know also reaffirms Brite as a writer with instinct and unique perspective -- and one well worth reading. ("Waves of Fear"Cemetery Dance #43)

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Copyright © 2003 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.