Review: Exquisite Corpse – Poppy Z. Brite

I’m not a huge fan of writing reviews, partly because I’m not very good at taking a firm stance on things which means I have a hard time quantifying how enjoyable something is. But since it seems 2018 is the year of trying new things, I figured I’d write up a few thoughts about the books I’ve been reading anyway.

I picked up Poppy Z. Brite’s book Exquisite Corpse partially because I was intrigued with the title. It made me think of the activity in which everyone draws part of an image or contributes words to form a sentence, often resulting in strange and surreal illustrations and ideas.

Exquisite Corpse came to me while I was browsing erratically through Vroman’s (a bookstore that deserves infinitely more time than I gave to it) through one of the little staff recommendation cards. I skimmed over the hand written note, found the term “graphic descriptions” and decided that it might just be the thing to help me jumpstart my way out of my creative rut.

Fair warning now that Brite’s novel was categorized in the horror section. If graphic discussions of murder, dismemberment, and explicit necrophilia make you uncomfortable, I suggest you ignore this review and this book. And as always, I’m prone to spoiling plots in my discussions.

exquisite corpse

As I thought about writing this review, I couldn’t think of a good way to summarize the plot, which I thought was a little jumbled together and oddly paced. If you’re looking for a simple summary, I suggest checking out Wikipedia for a rather simplistic description.

Instead, I figured I’d talk about the characters that set the stage and a few of the more pointed thoughts I had.

Andrew Compton is a serial killer that finds great joy in having his way with the dead bodies of his victims. For him, killing is a work of art. He is also the only character whose sections are narrated in the first person (a quirk of the writing that I’m still not sure I understand). He escapes early on in the novel from prison by faking his death and manages to make his way to the United States, where he brushes against the rest of the cast.

Jay Byrne is the novel’s other serial killer located in New Orleans. He finds his own kind of pleasure in killing and perverse sexual acts. Jay finds great joy not only in killing, but in taking men apart and butchering them, preparing them for his own consumption. His motivation lies in the notion that by eating their flesh, they somehow become a part of him, rendering them incapable of leaving him behind (a quirk of his character that comes up occasionally, but only on a superficial level).

Tran is the Vietnamese American kid whose full name is conveniently forgotten for most of the novel by nearly every character. He’s one of the French Quarter locals, kicked out of his parents’ home for his homosexuality and oddly attracted to Jay, whom he’s run into and interacted with for various drug deals. Once he’s kicked out, he seeks Jay out to test the waters in starting a relationship with him. (It ends about as well as you’d imagine a relationship with a serial killer would, although we’ll get into the details later.)

Lucas Ransom is Tran’s ex boyfriend, a writer turned tortured soul turned angry radio host, Lush Rimbaud. We don’t get a whole lot of Lucas’ character, aside from his burning love for Tran (which acts as the main motivator for the climax of the novel), and the fact that he’s dying of AIDS, the knowledge of which has essentially torn his life apart.

By the end of it all, Andrew and Lucas end up as the only surviving characters. Andrew and Jay conspire to kill and ultimately eat Tran, which goes wrong when Tran briefly escapes and catches Lucas’ attention just as he was prowling around trying to find him and rectify their relationship. Lucas ultimately thwarts the killers’ plan by stabbing Jay, but not before they’ve inflicted fatal woulds on Tran. Andrew manages to get away.

There’s a lot going on in the story, which may be why it isn’t quite as compelling as it could be. The novel’s only 240 pages long — there’s a lot of material to work with, and not enough space and time spent on it.

As I read, I gathered the themes that the book touched on but didn’t expand on as much as it could have:

  • The 90s gay scenes in both London and New Orleans — an incredibly important aspect of the setting, especially given that all of the main characters were gay men that dealt with the social climate differently.
  • Tran and Lucas’ relationship — there was an entire section in the middle of the novel where I nearly forgot that Andrew was part of the book. Their story, along with those of the auxiliary characters that made up their social circles could have made for their own narrative entirely.
  • One/either of the killers? Both Andrew and Jay had a great many opportunities to expand on their motivations, but we stop just short of exploring either of them in any meaningful way. Two killers for 240 pages may not have been enough space to give them any real depth.
  • The apparent love between Tran and Jay that the end of the novel hinted at?

If I’m going to be entirely honest, it was actually just the last paragraph of the novel that prompted me to stop, hold it at arm’s length, and really examine the characters and the story that I’d just read.

(Another graphic warning, if you’ve made it this far.)

Tran fell out of his binding straps and melted slowly into Jay’s ribcage. A large, viscous, faintly iridescent stain ate up the concrete floor around them. Their eyes were black caverns. They gave birth to worms, generation after generation, until their bodies were covered as if in a living blanket. Soon they were picked clean, their bones an ivory sculpture-puzzle shining in the dark, waiting to tell their mute love story.

Love story?

At what point in the novel did Tran and Jay have a love story? The greatest extent of their interaction had been when Tran sought Jay out for sex and Jay was lost in his thoughts for half of that encounter, trying to resist the temptation and avoid having sex with Tran for the sake of avoiding ripping him open and dissecting him in the process.

There was a brief moment in those thoughts that Jay marveled at the fact that Tran had sought him out and seemed to want to stay with him of his own volition. I remember a line to the effect of marveling at the fact that Tran was his only living friend. But this moment seemed forgotten and thrown out as soon as Andrew had come into his life.

I thought that maybe the last line had been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it also seems as if it wasn’t, as if we were supposed to hold on to the brief bits of “affection” through to the end of the novel. Although I suppose it doesn’t really matter at that point, either.

The verdict? Give it a shot if you’re looking for something a little out of the normal pace and don’t mind some graphic descriptions, both of murder and explicit sex. Otherwise, carry on as you usually do. You’ll be alright.

Painting a World in Dialogue: Subsurface Circular

“Show, don’t tell” may be one of the most common pieces of advice that beginning writers encounter in their early classes and workshops.

And while I’ll refrain from the debate on whether or not it’s a rule that holds fast or one that’s best broken, it’s an idea that I want to explore in Subsurface Circular.

[If you haven’t played the game and want to avoid spoilers, I suggest you proceed with caution. I drop spoilers in without warning, and without reverence.]

If my title hasn’t given it away, a lot of Subsurface Circular’s action takes place in dialogue. When you begin the game, you’re greeted with a scene on the train. If the robots — or Teks, in this game — in the title sequence didn’t alert you to what the characters you’d be interacting with looked like, then the first moments on the train certainly do.

The irony of the first chapter title isn’t lost on me after finishing the game once.

Through the first couple of interactions with the first Teks that you encounter on the train, you start to get a feel for the world and even for the Tek that you’re speaking as.

You learn that you’re a detective, geolocked to the train, and you’ve been asked to investigate a series of Tek disappearances and other suspicious activity. But how can you do that when you’re stuck on a train?

Easy. You talk to every passenger that comes aboard.

It doesn’t sound as if it would be compelling, just making conversation and choosing some dialogue options, but that’s why I ended up loving Subsurface Circular so much.

It’s a choose your own text adventure with a more appealing UI and at least one part of the world is visible to you. And if you ever thought that a train couldn’t set an appropriate atmosphere, this game would show you otherwise.

The color palettes are incredibly expressive.

Subsurface Circular covers a lot of the hot topics in the rise of sentient machinery, and there have been plenty of people that have written about it.

I want to talk more about how Subsurface Circular seems to show us the world through telling us. There’s a lot to learn about the world without actually having to step into it.

Never once do you feel lost, and the world unfolds itself quickly and organically through the dialogue options that you can select. The UI above each Tek’s head teaches you about their primary occupations, and you learn that each Tek comes programmed with a different capacities of thinking, communicating, and doing depending on what they’re programmed to do.

You learn that Teks and humans coexist, but not without some degree of unease and tension. Tek’s can’t technically be owned, but are programmed with Asimov’s laws that prevent them from inflicting harm on human beings — save for the exception of infantry Tek — and are controlled by a group of humans referred to as Management.

Humans are uneasy because the Teks are strange and unknowable, anthropomorphic machines that can do their jobs better, with more ease, and with fewer mistakes. They’ve formed a coalition and there are rumors of humans committing violent actions on Teks.

Before long, you find yourself in the midst of a revolution with Teks building up an army, ready to dictate their own futures rather than leave themselves under the judgment of the humans that seem to resent them.

One of the only sequence openings where you can’t see yourself.

If I’ve painted the game as the story of a robot/Tek uprising, I apologize. (But I’m sure now that you have some idea of which ending I chose).

But the magic of Subsurface Circular is that it doesn’t immediately make you want to opt for keeping the humans in power. As you learn more about the world through the mouths of the Teks that are taking a break from it on their underground commute, you start to understand where they’re coming from.

The game never alienates you from the understandable human fears that exist even today, but it does make a compelling argument for both sides.

Holding the gun.png
“Make a choice.”

Without rambling on, Subsurface Circular is a brilliant game that practices telling the story as much as showing it. If you haven’t played the game already, I highly recommend checking it out.

It’s a wonderfully neat little short with some wonderful storytelling in both dialogue and the few visuals that it provides.


Tips from Guillermo del Toro at Arclight Cinema

I don’t get out much — I’m an introvert working at a tech startup. My weekly routine is typically, go to work, visit the gym three times a week, and then go home. Sometimes I pretend to write, but mostly I sit around and read.

So when I was invited to go see Guillermo del Toro speak about The Shape of Water at Arclight Cinema, I was beyond excited.

Seating at the Arclight was far from intimate — the crowd nearly filled an entire theater — and despite this, there was still an incredibly personal feeling about the entire event.

From the very beginning, Del Toro told us that he wanted to cater the entire three-hour session toward the things that the crowd was interested in. The audience was made up of professionals in the field, people hoping to break into the space, and the casual movie-goers who happened to fall deeply in love with del Toro and his work.

He alternated between showing us some of the stunningly detailed pre-vis art, production shots, and behind the scenes footage and talking toward some of the questions fans had about The Shape of Water and some of his film practices more generally.

I didn’t end up asking any questions — horrible introvert, remember? — but I learned a lot more than I hoped, not the least of which included the finer details of sculpting The Asset’s butt.

There is no such thing as an accidental character.

Characters make the heart and soul of a story, and no character worth writing and telling a story about can be a mistake.

Listening to del Toro talk about the care that he puts into each of his characters is amazing. He let us see some of the immense character biographies that he wrote from Crimson Peak.

Writing whole biographies, likes, dislikes, and a small story somewhere between their birth and the beginning of the movie — creating realistic characters means that their writers have to keep in mind the whole life that they bring to the table and the screen.

If your goal is to write the best version of the movie that you can, then you can’t carelessly throw together characters and their interactions with one another.

If relationships in real life don’t work that way, then they won’t work that way in film.

Every choice needs to be deliberate.

If there are no such things as accidental characters, and then are definitely no accidental choices, either.

This was a theme that came up in every part of the talk, from writing the screenplay and the characters themselves to the smallest visual details of The Asset’s costume and Eliza’s wardrobe.

Colors carry a lot of weight in The Shape of Water. Del Toro explained and entire color-coding system, green for the future, red for love, and so on. None of these things happened by mistake, and all of these things were meant to be picked up by the audience.

The Asset’s chamber in the lab was meant to be evocative of his status as a god. Steps led up to his open tank, reminiscent of the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. The pipes behind this bath structure radiated outward, like the rays of the sun forming a halo.

Even if you’re not the person who consciously notices the smallest details, they work together in your subconscious. They set the scene and the characters to render them human and relatable, or at least create a visually cohesive world.

The film and its characters must manifest visually.

This sounds like it should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at how many writers seem to focus so much on the emotional and the internal that the actions and appearances of characters and their environment suffer as a result. (For example, I am horribly guilty of this.)

To quote the example that he used during the session: don’t tell me that Joe walks into the room burdened by the weight of his past and the guilt on his conscience.

Instead, tell me that Joe walks into the room and hesitates with his hand on the doorknob, glancing around the room before he steps out of the doorway. Tell me how half of his face is hidden in shadow, cut diagonally from his right temple to his left jaw.

Stories have to be told in the physical characteristics that art department and lighting can re-create so that they can make the details that the audiences will ultimately notice.

Take risks. Put your art out there.

I put these two somewhat-discrete thoughts together because I think they work well together.

When you’re working on a prospective film, whether you’re writing the script or designing the visuals, you can’t turn to other films for reference. They can be a source of inspiration, but you have to keep them as just that — inspiration.

Your favorite films can and will be part of your DNA, but you can’t use them as a reference. Instead, go back to science or the physical inspirations that you can find in reality.

Along those lines, you have to be willing to try things in film. If you have the opportunity to try something outrageous in your film, do it. Visually, in your writing, anywhere. These moments could be some of the most valuable storytelling elements.

The gestures that are the most ridiculous and risky can often be ridiculous enough that it must be true. Telling someone that you were late because of traffic is one thing. Telling someone that traffic was held up because of a woman chasing after a dog that was running down the center divider sounds ridiculous enough for someone to keep asking for more.

And as artists, the one thing you have to do is put your art out there. The stories we write are meant to be told, and as artists, our duty is to make our work available.

(I’m still working on this. I wrote this blog post between physical struggles to keep someone from googling the existence of this blog.)