Rain is liquid snow we can’t sled in. That’s what I keep telling myself to get through this wimpy winter. It’s also perfect reading weather and I have a small stack of horror to savor. Poppy Z. Brite comes up a lot as an author to check out and now I know why. No book has ever made me feel like a pale, moody goth kid before.
Lost Souls was published in 1992, long before Facebook and Instagram. Back in the good ol’ days when wild, mad vampires could drift around, chowing down on teens with dyed hair and black makeup, then be on their merry way with nobody the wiser.
This is a vampire story that claws out most of the stereotypes. Vampires are a species; they cannot be created. They age slower, heal faster and have evolved to blend as they are few. Older ones can only feed on blood, while younger ones can stomach food and have a taste for booze, particularly Chartreuse. They sharpen their teeth into fangs and some of them are okay in sunlight. Hobbies of our main fellows, Molochai, Twig and Zillah, include sex, feeding on people in a haze of drugs and booze, and driving around in a nasty black van with a stained mattress in back – whatever brings them pleasure. Zillah is their mad, beautiful leader and he’s a force of nature who’s not really big on condoms.
After visiting their new friend Christian at his bar in the French Quarter, Zillah and his crew leave behind a girl with a baby growing in her belly. Though he’s lonely and would probably have made the best dad, for some reason Christian drops the baby at a door step in Maryland to be raised by humans. Someone had to raise him since Zillah took off and baby vamps eat their way out of the womb, always killing the mother.
It’s a brief setup for what quickly becomes a story about Nothing, a 15-year-old in Maryland with dyed black hair and an itch to get out of Maryland. Similar to lots of teens, he feels isolated, like he doesn’t belong. In this case, he’s right. In his search to find out where he came from, who wrote the mysterious note he found in his mother’s drawer, a black van picks him up. They do love hitchhikers.
It’s no coincidence.
Blood calls to blood.
It’s where Nothing’s heading that changes everything for Steve and Ghost, two best friends who comprise an obscure southern band called Lost Souls? Ghost happens to be the grandson of a healer and senses bad times are a coming. Unfortunately for them, Nothing loves their music and thinks maybe they could be his family.
Within the first 50 or so pages we have two incestuous relationships and one rape, and yet the writing is powerful and the characters so compelling it keeps sucking you in. The author doesn’t leave you much room to get all judgy about the incest. Of course vampires have a different take on morality. We call them serial killers; they call us cocktails. Incest isn’t wrong to them. It all makes for some dark reading, icky at times, but it never took away from how much I enjoyed the story.
All the boring parts we don’t need to read are cut out. Baby Nothing is dropped off. He ages 15 years off of the page (the pace of the vampires’ aging confused me. In 15 years, Nothing ages 15 years just like a human. I guess at some point their aging slows and they stay young and beautiful for hundreds of years.) and we basically meet him again as he runs away, attempting to hitchhike to Lost Souls? when Zillah’s van picks him up.
In the back of the van, Nothing discovers his true nature. His once empty life fills with thirst, blood and contradictions. He’s an intelligent boy drawn to emotional poetry, stars and magic, and Ghost’s sensitivity. And yet now it’s in his awakened nature to drink people dry, pick flesh from his teeth, and he loves his cruel, vicious Zillah.
As they arrive at the home Steve and Ghost share, Nothing’s chosen world of blood and sex and night crashes into the soulful, mystical musicians he adores.
This was baby powder and cigarette smoke, forgotten toys and eyeliner and torn black lace, nursery rhymes and dank nightclub restrooms haunted by a breath of vomit. This was the distilled essence of all that was lost forever and all that came to replace it.
I love that the plot doesn’t get lost in a romantic fascination with vampires or magic. It’s a fast paced, well constructed story with a few quiet moments to hug a cat and take a shower in between. And it’s bloody, which is one thing many tame vampire novels weirdly lack. Brite does something so clever I almost took it for granted. Vampires aren’t monsters, they’re their own species. Because the story stays objective, it doesn’t fall heavy into the us-against-them-and-they-must-be-stopped formula. They want to live as they wish and, yes, some humans have a problem with the trail of dead bodies part of that wish, but the humans have their own struggles – guilt, violence, and addictions – to deal with, too.
He did not want to feel this boy’s pain because he couldn’t lessen it. Nothing was lost. He might not know it yet – but, what frightened Ghost more, he might know it. He might know it very well. He might have chosen it.
The vampires’ are primarily homosexual and there’s nothing cloaked about it. No apologies and there shouldn’t be. It was nice to read such a fantastic horror novel about complex characters who happen to also be gay or bi without their sexuality being the center of the story.
The crisp, charismatic writing flows fast and the story has this strange bloody heart because it’s about being who you are and finding the one place you really fit. For Ghost and Steve, that place is each other. Their tender friendship and the likelihood of at least one of them ending up lunch, makes it clear how much they need each other. Nothing finds his place with a couple of childlike lunatics led by his destructive father/lover, and it fills that longing in him.
Brite’s writing created a huge canvas from a small story with a straightforward plot and memorable characters. Had I known this is a vampire book, I wouldn’t have checked it out – the subject doesn’t interest me. But this is a great book and probably the best vampire novel I’ve read, though I haven’t read Rice or many others.