I've just finished listening to Crossroad Press's audio adaptation of Poppy Z Brite's classic debut novel, Lost Souls. Lost Souls was first published in 1992, when I was working as a bookseller, and while I loved it then (and sold it by the crate, shoving it into the hands of everyone who came into the store), I haven't read it since. Brite wrote some very celebrated vampire fiction around that period, characterized by romantic and gritty portrayals of subcultures and dropouts, homoerotic imagery, and explicit, graphic violence; all in all, a potent cocktail, and I very much enjoyed it then.
Brite later moved away from the vampire stuff, and began to write novels about New Orleans restaurateurs. Some of Brite's fans were displeased by this, but I really like these books too. I got the impression through mutual friends that Brite had disavowed her earlier work and wasn't happy to be known for it, so I was surprised to see a new adaptation of Lost Souls. The people at Crossroad assure me that the edition has Brite's approval, though.
The adaptation is good and sometimes great. The reader, Chris Patton, does generally excellent work with Brite's material, and the production values are very high, with the exception of a couple of minor read-os -- nothing fatal or even particularly off-putting. At $12.99 for 12 hours' worth of DRM-free MP3, this is a damned good bargain.
And what's more, it is a brilliant book, even more enjoyable today, 20 years later, than it was when I first read it. It's a book that reminds you that the first novel contains material that the author has saved up for her entire life, literally, and the resulting story is so rich and, well, enthusiastic that I was swept away with it.
Lost Souls is the story of Nothing, the bastard child of a callous, erotically charged vampire named Zilla, who carelessly impregnated Nothing's human mother one Mardi Gras night in New Orleans, even though he knew that human women who carry vampire children to term always die in delivery. Christian, the older vampire who cared for Nothing's mother after Zilla abandoned her, sends Nothing away to a small town in Maryland and leaves him on the doorstep of a middle-class couple.
15 years later, Nothing is a gloomy, strange subculture kid, trying to lose himself in indiscriminate sex and drugs and drink, without success. Though his adoptive parents hid the strange circumstances of his origins, he has lately uncovered them and this has widened the gap between him and the adults around him. One day, he simply leaves, taking $100 from his mother's emergency stash and heading vaguely out of town, thinking to visit Missing Mile, North Carolina, because he's fallen in love with the music of Lost Souls, an indie band whose homemade cassette he's happened upon, and Missing Mile is the address on the cassette's liner.
Lost Souls are a duo, Steve and Ghost, close friends who live for their music and who experience a brotherly bond that is strained but never broken, despite Steve's violent, fraught affair with Ann, his ex-girlfriend, and Ghost's odd, psychic gifts. Neither of them is really able to survive in the world, but together, they make almost a whole person, keeping one another from going beyond the self-destructive brink.
As Christian, Zilla (and his two vampire lovers, Twig and Molochai), Lost Souls, and Nothing cross the American south, heading for one another, drifting in and out of New Orleans, a story of raw, erotically charged nihilism unfolds. Brite's work is unselfconsciously brutal and matter-of-fact about rapes, prostitution, murder, beatings; it is simultaneously gloomy and gothic and exuberant and modern, a trick of authenticity that puts the likes of Stephanie Meyer and Anne Rice to shame.
Brite's characters blow past the point of no-return again and again, neither seeking nor receiving redemption, and yet throughout, they remain likable and even sympathetic. There, perhaps, is Brite's greatest gift, her capacity to romanticize the careening, self-regarding, the awful so well that you have to admit that there's a part of you that wants to let go, cut loose all bonds of propriety and empathy, some predator chained up in your psyche's basement.
Brite's recent work is awfully good, and I respect any artist who turns his back on what's easy and popular to follow his muse, but whether Brite loves this book any longer or not, I still love it. I'm delighted to discover that it's back in a new form, and hope it finds another generation to thrill and terrorize.