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Authors: Poppy Z. Brite

Swamp Foetus

BOOK: Swamp Foetus
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***

To the memory of Alcohol

My dear lost love.

Contents

A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics of Poppy by Dan Simmons

Angels

A Georgia Story

His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood

Optional Music for Voice and Piano

Xenophobia

The Sixth Sentinel

Missing

Footprints in the Water

How To Get Ahead In New York

Calcutta, Lord of Nerves

The Elder

The Ash of Memory, The Dust of Desire

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

In addition to everyone mentioned in the following Introduction, thanks are due to the editors who originally bought and published the stories (particularly David B. Silva of The Horror Show), to the reviewers, (Ed Bryant, Charles DeLint, Linda Marotta) who said kind things about them, to Tom Monteleone and Borderlands Press for conceiving and incubating Swamp Foetus, to my agent, Richard Curtis, and to Monica and Michael as always.

The date appearing after each story refers to when it was written, not when it was published. There is a long gap in at least one case. The stories are not arranged in anything resembling chronological order, but this way anyone who is interested can puzzle out the sequence of them.

Love and Slack

P. Z. B.

A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics of Poppy

An Introduction by Dan Simmons

1. IN WHICH WE ASK THE GENERAL QUESTION: IS THE FUNCTION OF THE TRADITIONAL INTRODUCTION ARCHAIC AND OBSOLETE?

Well sure it is. Isn’t it? Doesn’t the very idea of one writer “introducing” another writer to the reader smack of hoop skirts and stickpins and a basic Victorian sensibility that is as dead as Barnaby Rudge’s mother’s cat? Readers who buy books near the end of the Twentieth Century have no more need of genteel introductions to new writers than Martin Luther required the intercessionary meddlings of priests selling indulgences out of back-alley booths.

Readers in the Brave New World of the discount decade (1992—1995—1999, etc.) are willing to pay their money and take their chances, minus formal introductions or other Victorian niceties.

So why am I writing this to introduce Poppy Z. Brite to you?

Well, speaking for myself, which is all I ever do, I’m volunteering this introduction for precisely the same reason that I went to a picnic of friends and colleagues early in the summer of 1977 and raved about a new and relatively unknown movie I had just seen. “It’s fun!” I said. “It’s different. It’s really a return to a kind of exciting movie-making that I haven’t seen in years. Go see it!”

“What’s the name of this film?” asked my friends. (Beware of amateur auteurs who refer to movies as “films.”)

“Star Wars,” I said.

“Ah…” they sniffed dismissively, returning to their Brie. “Sci-fi.”

And that was that.

But, never one to be discouraged from a worthy enthusiasm, I’m back to tell you all about Poppy Z. Brite. Infinitely darker and more intelligent than all the Star Wars movies ever made, her work still packs the excitement of something new under the sun… or in this case, something new under the dark of the moon.

2. WHEREIN WE ASK THE QUESTION: WHO IS POPPY Z. BRITE AND WHY IS SHE DOING THESE TERRIBLE THINGS TO OUR HEADS?

Look for no Patti Davis-style revelations here. If there is the usual short author’s bio in the back of this book, then you and I know about the same amount about Poppy Z. Brite. Even though I have met Poppy twice (details to come), I know little more about this enigmatic figure than the details on her brief bio sheet that lies by my keyboard even as I write.

“Born in 1967…”—Can this be? Are there really professional writers out there—especially brilliant and accomplished ones like Poppy Z. Brite—who were
born
in 1967?

I have
ties
older than this kid…

“ …has worked as a gourmet candy maker, an artist’s model, a cook, a mouse caretaker, and an exotic dancer.”—Shades of the good-old Jack London days when writers had
lived
before they sat down to write. Now the obligatory author’s bio usually reads “Ms. Termuggli is a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA Foundation grants, the Lizzie Borden NOW Award for Politically Correct Fiction Involving Activist Women, and the Breadloaf Ms. Congeniality Runners-up Trophy… Ms. Termuggli teaches feminist deconstructionist theory and postmodernist plotless fiction technique at Whazzituya Community College.”

No, Poppy Z. Brite has
had a life!
But… born in 1967? How many generations of mice could she have caretaken? How many exotic dances could she have shimmied through? And what, I ask (admitting my shocking naivete), is “gourmet candy?”

“Her other interests include Asian culture and religion (she is a particular fan of the goddess Kali), New Orleans hoodoo and other forms of folk magic…”—These facts become self-evident as one reads the fiction of Poppy Z. Brite. New Orleans is a hulking, rotting, brooding, dripping presence in much of her fiction, and although her bio goes on to say that she is currently a resident of Georgia, one senses that this is an aberration. (Her residency there is an aberration, that is, not the state of Georgia. Although some have argued that case eloquently…) Brite’s fiction is redolent with the dark magic and darker decay of the bayou and the wrought-iron-shadowed alleys of New Orleans. She evokes these places with a power that would—-just taken by itself—put her far out ahead of the great herd of new writers clamoring for your attention.

Finally, the bio sheet I am looking at has an element that your version of the book may not include. It is a photograph of the author. She is supine on a bed… or perhaps it is a marble altar draped with white linen. A triangle of light behind her head may be a New Age halo or the scatter from a radiant crystal. Or perhaps just a right-angled shaft of sunlight. The author is nude from the waist up, but she is holding a ferret across her breasts. The photocopied photograph is not terribly clear, and it took hours of patient photoanalysis to ascertain that the ferret is not a cuddly, stuffed, Steifl-type ferret, but a real live, domesticated, red-eyed, albinic variety of the polecat such as those used in Europe for driving rabbits and rats from their burrows. The author is looking at the ferret. The ferret is looking at the camera.

Shadows and the camera angle do not show the inevitable claw marks or the delicate drops of blood on the pale flesh, but the imagination supplies such details with almost alarming alacrity. But this is sexist and irrelevant and no… I will not send you a copy of the photograph… don’t ask.

And finally, there is the name: Poppy Z. Brite. One has trouble imagining, in even the wildest flights of Aquarian-age 1967 fancy, the proud Brite parents christening a defenseless infant Poppy Z. One assumes therefore that this name was, in the tradition of Mark Twain and Malcolm X, an active choice, an assumption of persona… a declaration of personality.

Then again, one might be full of shit. One can only be sure that it is none of one’s business. One moves on.

3. IN WHICH WE ASK THE RHETORICAL QUESTION: HOW DID WE MEET THE AUTHOR?

The first time I met Poppy Z. Brite was at a booksigning in Atlanta, Georgia. She was the one patient enough to stand in line to have a book inscribed. I was the one oafish enough not to recognize her name as a writer already published in magazines such as
The Horror Show
. She said kind things about this author’s book; this author made effusive apologies for not having read her stuff and offered solemn (and hypocritical) vows to seek it out. End of first meeting.

The second encounter was more enlightening.

In April of 1991 was at a science-fiction convention cum literary conference hosted by SUNY at Stony Brook on Long Island. The organizers and audiences were enthusiastic, the contingent of writers and other professionals present was impressive, but the rest of the trip was—to use a polite phrase— Dante-esque.

On my part I’d flown to the conference with the first ear infection I’d ever had. In functional terms, this meant that while I was now at sea level, my inner ear had chosen to stay pressurized at Colorado altitude of 5,280 feet. The effect was not dissimilar to having an icepick permanently lodged through the eardrum.

To add to this distraction, the university building at Stony Brook was a massive, ugly, Orwellian heap of pre-stressed concrete that looked as if it had been slapped together by Soviet contractors on a bad day. The inside reminded me of the Evil One’s castle of cement Leggo blocks in Time Bandits: dark, dirty, depressing, and drippy on the inside when it rained. It rained the entire time of the conference. Water dripped on the cheap plastic chairs in classrooms, puddled under tables, splashed on the heads of presenters, and pooled in little septic quagmires in the halls. All in all, the place had the feeling of a Blade Runner set without the charm. Naturally the acoustics were comparable to those in Carlsbad Caverns and no one dared turn on a microphone for fear of being electrocuted in the drizzle.

It was two days into this grim marathon, I’d just finished a panel discussion on some obtuse topic, the pain from the ear infection had just reached the point where the only sane course of action was to grab a scoped-in hunting rifle, climb a tower, and take out as many undergraduates as possible before the SWAT team brought you down, and a writer on the panel (John Skip if you must know the details) said, “Poppy Brite’s doing a reading right after this. Want to go?”

Actually, I’d been waiting to hear Harlan Ellison’s reading that hour. Harlan’s readings never disappointed, and the story he was presenting was a new one. The main hall already had a thousand people josding for seats and more were coming. My heart sank for Poppy Z. Brite, whoever she was. It’s hard enough for a new writer to find listeners at public readings; to be counterprogrammed against Harlan Ellison was ridiculous.

“Sure,” I said to Skip. “I’d like to hear her read.”

And so I went. The reading was in a room not even on the program guide map, tucked under the stairs in what may have been a cloakroom. I think there were six people there. I may have been the only member of the audience not wearing black leather and chains.

Poppy Z. Brite’s voice is soft, melodious, almost shy-sounding. But there was nothing shy or retiring about her prose. The story she read that day was “Calcutta: Lord of Nerves.” It was about zombies.

First, I must say that I dislike zombie stories on principle. Secondly, I should admit that I once wrote about Calcutta and feel rather proprietary about it. (How dare this whippersnapper—born in 1967!—write about
my
city!) Finally, I have to admit that the ear infection had ratcheted up from an icepick-in-the-ear level to something approaching the hot-darning-needle-in-the-brain setting. Between the water dripping, the Carlsbad acoustics, the rustle of chains in the dark, and the cascade of pain, it was hard to concentrate.

For the first thirty seconds or so.

The story she read was simply one of the most powerful pieces of imaginative fiction I had ever heard. This short, melodious-voiced young woman with the Raggedy Ann stockings and the violet hair pulled me out Stony Brook and the haze of pain and the Western Hemisphere and brought me to places in Calcutta (and in myself) that I had not—and,
could not have
—imagined to exist.

It was brilliant and dark and infinitely tragic and powerfully precise. Poppy Z. Brite was reading a tale about zombies in a George Romero world, but the story was
really
about a place on our planet where a few million wandering ghouls would go effectively unnoticed, where decaying zombies could easily be confused for the lepers already there, and where Kali has always ruled and always will. More than that, it was a riveting tale of sex and decay and the darkest kind of love where passion and violence are the same thing.

I don’t remember what I said to her after the reading. I know I babbled. I’m only sure of one part of the conversation — in my stunned state, I must have promised John Skip, who was standing nearby, a zombie story for his upcoming
Still Dead
anthology because he called some months later and asked when it would be ready. Obviously I had forgotten that I hate zombies and zombie stories. I think I forgot my name for a while after listening to Poppy’s story that day. All I wanted to do was go somewhere quiet and relatively dry and think about the images she had steamrolled me with.

BOOK: Swamp Foetus
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