Poppy Z. Brite,
The Devil You Know
(Subterranean Press, 2003)

This collection of short stories by popular horror author Poppy Z. Brite, written over the course of four years, spans a wide variety of styles -- none of which are the real hard-core vampire-gore-death tales that made her (relatively) famous. Although this may be a disappointment to some of her fans, it shows her to be a writer with some range and depth, and will no doubt help her gain more widespread fame and acceptance -- and don't worry, there's still plenty of action here!

Brite acknowledges her shift to more mainstream, less horrific tales in her introduction. "I realized I was tired of always dealing with damaged, angst-ridden characters; that I was tired of writing horror, a field that had once felt limitless to me...." There is still a dark tinge to her work, and many of the elements of her earlier novels and stories are still evident: New Orleans, the gay lifestyle, rock 'n' roll and gourmet food. But there is more humor, and more everyday life, too.

There are 13 stories in the collection, and while all of them are pretty good, the true standouts are the four detailing what Brite refers to as her "alternate life" as New Orleans coroner Dr. Brite. "O Death, Where Is Thy Spatula?" is a moving tale of Dr. Brite's voodoo rescue of her favorite chef from the cold sleep of death. "The main thing you need to know about me is that I love eating more than anything else in the world," begins the tale, and the truth of that statement becomes quite obvious when Dr. Brite chops off her own finger to complete her voodoo spell. The story also features this charming description of her husband: "His name is Reginald, but I never thought that suited him, so I call him Seymour."

"Marisol" and "Poivre" deal with the trials and tribulations of day-to-day coroner life -- you know, affairs with famous rock musicians (sorry, Seymour!), nights of rambunctious hard drinking -- the usual stuff. The mildly shocking food served at Dr. Brite's favorite haunts (Maine lobster wrapped in a crispy pig's ear with baby bok choy) makes for pretty entertaining reading in itself. The mix of humor and noir is just right.

"The Heart of New Orleans," the final Dr. Brite selection in the book, has a truly great premise. The question has been bandied about for centuries -- are artists born, or are they made? Here, Brite gives us her take on this dilemma in the case of a young boy, killed in a tragic accident. She notes the strange striations on his heart during the autopsy, and then his ghost reveals their purpose to her in a dream, leaving her with a truly daunting task. ... But to say more would be to give away the ending, which would be most unfair. You'll just have to read it yourself.

The Dr. Brite character is so enjoyable -- such a strange combination of Quincy and Julia Child, with a pinch of Axl Rose thrown in -- that she overshadows the rest of the cast a bit. But there are some very good yarns among the rest, too. For instance, "Lantern Marsh," which details a young man's obsession with the eerie lights that dance in the swamp near his home, and "Pansu," a hilarious tale of what happens when a Korean cook is possessed by the devil in the restaurant one night.

Many of the characters and scenarios used in this book, we are told, either lead up to, tie in with or somehow relate to Brite's upcoming novel, Liquor, scheduled for release in 2004. Although they certainly stand on their own (as most good appetizers can), they also whet the appetite for the next course. Bring it on, Poppy!

- Rambles
written by April Chase
published 11 January 2003