Classics Review- Exquisite Corpse
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Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite, is a horror book about serial killers in love.
Brite was one of the core authors of the eighties and nineties goth subculture alongside Anne Rice to whom she owes a lot of gratitude for clearing the way for her. The first of her two horror novels were focussed on the supernatural, first vampires and then… I literally do not have enough time in my life to explain what Drawing Blood was about but needless to say there was some level of magic, teenagers and small town, deep south horror in all of her work up until this point. The jumping off point for Brite was that rather than sticking to romanticising tragically misunderstood creatures of the night she moved on to apply the same logic to the very human monsters that are serial killers.
Large swathes of Exquisite Corpse are written from the perspective of two separate psychopaths. Each devoted to the murder and mutilation of young, inevitably gay, men but each with their own unique drives and motivations and while from my initial description of this book you may believe the book is about their love story it is more often about their love for their victims and the ways that they express their love.
Outside of the serial killers we have two other main characters, Tran and Lucas. Tran is a teenage boy and Lucas was his lover until his deteriorating health and mental state drove them apart. Every character identifies Tran as their perfect victim and as Lucas draws closer to death, his own anger and violence draw him back to the boy for the very same reason.
The book is written in Brite's usual smooth prose drawing heavily on events surrounding real serial killers and her obsession and adoration for the setting of New Orleans to add an uncomfortable level of realism. On that single level Exquisite Corpse succeeds as a chilling horror novel. But mere success doesn't make a classic. What elevates this story? The entire book is a metaphor for AIDS.
The protagonists are the silent killers that will destroy any man that they take home with their twisted version of love. One of the killers explicitly states that no victim has ever survived his orgasm. Most of Lucas' storyline revolves around his anger about having contracted the virus and Tran's story is all about an innocent surrounded on all sides by this lethal danger that he has no knowledge of. Wherever the plot is not explicitly discussing the AIDS crisis of the eighties and the way that it has effected the characters it is using the serial killers as avatars of the disease. Viciously loving every part of their victims from the inside out and snaring them with promises of, if not romance, then at least some level of affection.
The book is violent, and the description never flinches from lovingly detailing the brutality from the perspective of both the aroused killers and the tormented victims. Even for hardcore horror fans it can be difficult to stomach. So take my strong recommendation to read it with a warning. Even if you don't enjoy this book, it is going to haunt you.