Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poppy Z. Brite - Drawing Blood

So many beautifully drawn dead bodies. (p. 162)

Drawing Blood is Poppy Z. Brite's second novel and my first experience with her full length work, though I had previously read and enjoyed Swamp Foetus/Wormwood and the collaborative Wrong Things. Centered on two young men shaped and horribly wounded by their parents and struggling to come to terms with life and love, Drawing Blood is an exemplary work of character driven Horror.

Brite's approach to Horror is almost the exact opposite of Stephen King. In novels like 'Salem's Lot, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and so many others King places ordinary people into the most extraordinary of situations. Brite, on the other hand, takes the oddest characters and lets them live their lives. Though the novel's events can certainly be arranged into a convincing synopsis that promises thrills and action, Drawing Blood is one of the least plot-driven novels I have ever encountered. 

The two protagonists don't so much have pressing plots as they do backstories. When Trevor was five, his father, a famous artist, slaughtered Trevor's mother and brother and hung himself. Zach, meanwhile, lived a lucrative life as a hacker in New Orleans after leaving home at sixteen to escape his violent father and cruel mother. The ramifications of these pasts are not skin deep, and Brite does not shy away from her characters' darkness. Zach and Trevor have both been hurt awfully in the past, and that pain has twisted each of them in a myriad of ways. They can be jagged to get to know, and their lives can at first seem nothing but a tapestry of scars. But Brite imbues every word of her narration with the contents of their souls. The reader comes to know and understand them, to grasp their strange tastes and habits, and to feel their needs. Scant chapters into the book, Zach and Trevor feel like dear friends or, beyond even that, like alternate lives that we ourselves might have led.

Needless to say, Zach and Trevor meet, though they don't do so as quickly as one might think. On the twentieth anniversary of his father's murders, Trevor returns to his family home in Missing Mile to try and understand why he was spared. Zach, warned by a fellow hacker that the Secret Service is closing in on him, flees his home and city. For him, Missing Mile is just a stop on the road, but stop there he does, and it's then that he meets Trevor.

From that point on, the book's progress is wholly formed by the characters' interactions with one another. Missing Mile is the setting of much of Brite's work, including Lost Souls and one of the pieces in Wrong Things. Filled with all those accumulated stories, the town's roads and sections are vividly described with all the insider familiarity and lived-in distinction of any town you might find on the map. Far more importantly, it is filled with warmly human characters. Townsmen Terry and Kinsey have full and believable lives of their own outside of and beyond the confines of these here three hundred and seventy-three pages, and the depths of their lives and manner is evident from the briefest conversation we see them hold. Seeing two of Brite's characters interact is like watching your fiancé meet your mother; you know every person in the room as well as you could possibly know someone, but they don't know each other, and they are far too real and far too complex to be predictable. Though they will always stay true to their character, you don't know how the conversation will go until it plays out before your eyes.

Zach and Trevor fall in love, and the source of the novel's greatest light is also that of its deepest darkness. Both of them have well learned by this point that love brings pain, that it ends with cutting words and tears, pain and blame and regret, maybe even blood, that all of those things are almost guaranteed (p. 157). They know that safety is best found in emotional solitude. Zach isn't willing to risk the injury to himself that will come if he trusts and loves another. And Trevor isn't willing to take anyone with him (p. 174). When he first fucks Zach, he realizes that sex and violence have the same power, but that isn't the only connection, for death and love dance together as closely in his mind as cause and effect. If you loved someone, he wonders time and time again, really loved them, wouldn't you want to take them with you when you died? (p. 102)

As Trevor explores the house his father lived in and the deaths his father caused, he slips towards becoming his father. And as he falls in love with Zach, he risks killing the boy that he loves in the fulfillment of that love. The danger here is all internal. Drawing Blood boasts no villain, has no ticking bomb at the center of its plot. Its story is Trevor and Zach coming together with who they are and with their pasts and each other, and its dangers are no less real for that. When Trevor does cross the edge, the reader feels it twice over, feels the pain of his blows and also the violation of someone we know so well do something so cruel.

The overall feeling of Drawing Blood can likely best be summed up and felt in a description of Trevor's father's comic, a description that could pass just as well as one for the novel itself. To allow the characters I'm describing to wield the pen for a moment, Trevor describes the comic and the novel as made of: stark, slick, slightly hallucinatory drawings, the distorted reflections in puddles and the dark windows of bars, the constant low-key threat of violence, the feeling that everything in the strip was a little larger than life, and a little louder, and, a little weirder (pp. 100-1). All of this is brought out by Brite's fantastic prose. Brite is capable of bringing characters to life and of standing back while they need quick sentence to act and interact. He is also capable of stunning lines and images that crystallize her world, be they melancholically beautiful (Most of the Hummingbirds [family]were poetic souls tethered to alcoholic bodies. (p. 25)) or brutal in their extremity and futility (The skull always grinned because it knew it would emerge triumphant, that it would comprise the sole identity of the face long after vain baubles like lips and skin and eyes were gone. (p. 225)).

Despite its frequently grotesque imagery, its bouts of extreme violence, and its general no holds barred approach, calling Drawing Blood a Horror novel feels almost wrong. Horror is, certainly, a part of it, but it's not the only or even necessarily the dominant part. This is as much a love story as it is a horror one. In his description of it on his site, Brite says that this is a "very druggy book" and also one with "lots and lots and lots of hot, exhaustively detailed sex." Both are certainly true, and the novel seems about as much about those, and about its characters, and about Missing Mile, and all sorts of other things, as it does about its Horror. Truthfully, some sort of archaic label like Decadent or a modern one like, despite its often pejorative sense, Goth seems to fit the entirety of the novel better than Horror.

Whatever its classification, Drawing Blood is a powerful read. The book is messy in terms of its genre, its plot, and its characters, but that very messiness is part of why it feels like such a richly human book. The pages of Drawing Blood are stuffed with living, breathing people, and it's a pleasure to get to know them.

[Note: all page numbers from the limited James Cahill hardcover edition]


  1. Excellent and insightful review (which I didn't read in its entirety b/c I plan on reading the book myself soon!). I like that you note a description like "decadent" or "gothic" fits Brite more; that's just the approach I took when I reviewed WORMWOOD. I wasn't as taken with her first novel, LOST SOULS, as I was with her stories, but I read it back in '92; maybe I'd like it more now...? Also: love the purples and design of the hardcover.

  2. I remember loving Brite's Lost Souls. Really need to read more of her stuff. /runs off to get Drawing Blood

  3. @ Will: Your review of Wormwood was actually what made me finally get off the bench and check Brite out when I discovered your blog last year. I did read the collection, and did love it, though I foolishly waited too long to review it and realized I'd need a reread to do it justice (someday!). I have heard good things about Lost Souls, though I haven't read it yet. And the cover's colors really are quite nice. I read the limited edition (which I couldn't find a good shot of to put at the review's top), which was a very nice volume but didn't have cover art.

    @ Ellie: I hope you enjoy it! Though it wasn't a page turner in a "gotta find out what happens!" sense, I really couldn't put this one down until I finished it. Great stuff.

  4. Poppy Z. Brite is one talented storyteller. I've read this book at least a dozen times since the publication date. The storyline and Poppy's development of the characters is top notch! If you haven't ever read any of her work, what are you waiting for?