Ever since my very early twenties, Poppy Z. Brite (the pen name of the one and only Billy Martin) has been my favourite author. Although I could probably write an autobiography about the effect that his novels had on me during the two most important years of my life, I want to keep this article below two thousand words.
If you’re new to this author, then the thing to remember is that Martin’s stories are almost always more about the journey than the destination. They’re about spending time in various versions of New Orleans, hanging out with fascinating characters and just soaking in the atmosphere rather than about following a specific story.
Likewise, Martin’s exquisitely lush, vivid writing style is something that has to be read to be believed. Even if you don’t like horror or romance, then his books are still worth reading just for the narration alone!
But, one of the annoying things about being a fan of Martin’s stories is that they aren’t always the easiest thing to find in the world. Aside from his more well-known novels and short story collections, a fair portion of his works are rare, small-press “only published in America” type things. Sure, you can probably get them as e-books, but they are the kind of stories that I feel demand to be read on paper, the old-fashioned way.
Still, when browsing online a couple of weeks before writing this review, I happened to notice that a second-hand copy of “Antidiluvian Tales” was going cheap on Amazon. Well, relatively cheap. Even though it was an ex-library copy from America that would take a fortnight to cross the Atlantic, it still seemed worth getting. Hence this review.
So, let’s take a look at “Antedivulian Tales”. This review may contain some SPOILERS:
“Antedivulian Tales” is a short story collection from 2007 which collects several New Orleans-themed stories that Martin wrote before Hurricane Katrina, in addition to a non-fiction piece about the hurricane. Given that the effects of the hurricane were one of the reasons why he retired from writing, there’s a certain poignance to this collection. It’s a glimpse back at a better time of the author’s life.
One cool thing about this collection is that it is only about 116 pages in length. Although this might sound like it’s a bit too short, it also means that it can be read cover-to-cover within the space of an hour or two. It’s a relaxing, satisfying experience that can be enjoyed without the time investment that would come with a longer collection. Plus, with the vivid narration and deep characterisation on offer here, the collection’s length feels like a brilliant example of quality taking precedence over quantity.
Another interesting thing about this slender collection of stories is how much of a mixture of Martin’s older and newer fiction it is. There are several stories that serve as short prequels to Martin’s “Liquor” novels. But there’s also a random story about absinthe, Mardi Gras and the 1990s. And there are a couple of 1990s-style horror stories featuring Dr. Brite, the coroner of New Orleans. Not to mention that one of the “Liquor” prequel stories is also an old-school 1970s-style ghost story too.
Yet, despite this large amount of variety, the stories are all linked together surprisingly well. This is mostly because of their shared New Orleans setting, Martin’s uniquely brilliant narrative voice and several of the themes running throughout the collection (eg: food, Catholicism, family, death, love, mystery etc..)
So, let’s take a look at the actual stories…
“The Feast Of St. Rosalie” is a slice of life story, focusing on Rosalie Stubbs during the titular “Feast of St. Rosalie”, a Catholic holy day in New Orleans. The story is one of those vivid, atmospheric and mostly plotless stories that is more of a character study than anything else.
“Four Flies And A Swatter” is this wonderful little story about a bar in 1990s New Orleans, the day after Mardi Gras. With only four random customers at the bar, one of the bartenders decides to dust off an old bottle of absinthe that he’s found. Not only does this story contain some very slight hints of “Lost Souls“, but it also contains an absolutely brilliant ending which is simultaneously uplifting, tragic, funny and creepy at the same time.
“Henry Goes Shopping” is a slightly funny short character study about Henry Stubbs. He’s about to buy some condoms, but finds himself in the embarrassing situation of standing behind a nun in the checkout line.
“The Working Slob’s Prayer” is more of a concrete prequel to the first “Liquor” novel, giving us a fascinating “slice of life” glimpse at the kitchen of the Peychaud Grill, where Rickey and G-Man worked before the events of “Liquor”.
Although this story is only sixteen pages long, it feels more like a novel 🙂 Not only do we get to see lots of interesting characters, but there are several story threads and even a possible author insert too. Seriously, how Martin managed to cram all of this amazing stuff into less than twenty pages, without the story ever feeling rushed or superficial, I’ll never know.
“Crown Of Thorns” is the first of the two ‘Dr. Brite’ stories. The story focuses on both a rather strange autopsy and Dr. Brite’s relationship with his new boyfriend Hank.
Although the mystery of why a dead body was found with an unusual gourd in his chest is deepened rather than resolved at the end of the story, the conclusion still feels oddly satisfying. Plus, this story also contains an amusing little reference to “Liquor” at one point too.
“Wound Man And Horned Melon Go To Hell” takes the form of a gleefully irreverent letter written to Jesus by Dr. Brite, relating the strange events that befell him and Hank whilst visiting a Russian-themed restaurant.
This is another mysterious horror story (with some brilliantly funny moments), that is also wonderfully evocative of the gothic fiction that Billy Martin used to write during the 1990s. Plus, the title is just awesome too.
“The Devil Of Delery Street” is probably the most unusual short story in the collection. It starts out as another prequel story about the Stubbs family, but soon turns into a 1970s-style ghost story with an atmosphere that is very vaguely reminscent of something like “The Exorcist” or “Carrie”. Like with the other horror stories in this collection, there’s a real emphasis on mystery here – which really helps to give the story a surprising sense of realism.
“The Last Good Day Of My Life (A True Story)” is an account of a holiday to Australia that the author took about a month before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
The segments about Australia are written in the lush, vividly descriptive way that you would expect – but all of this beauty is, of course, contrasted with the uglier events that would follow. Although the later part of the account focuses more on Martin’s emotional reaction to Katrina, it is chillingly punctuated with a couple of understated excerpts from a journal that he kept at the time.
All in all, this is a really interesting collection of stories. Yes, it’s the kind of thing that avid fans of the author (like myself) will get the most out of, but it also possibly serves as a really interesting introduction to the different types of fiction that Martin wrote before he retired. What this collection may lack in length, it more than makes up for in both quality and depth.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.