Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lost Souls

An unusual and very graphic novel of vampires as a different species, LOST SOULS (1992), by Poppy Z. Brite, tells a story of several alienated characters struggling to find their true selves.

The protagonist, a teenage boy called Nothing, discovers his real origin at the age of fifteen and takes to the road as a runaway. Brought up by adoptive parents under the name of Jason, Nothing was conceived in a casual encounter between the vampire Zillah and a human girl, Jessy. Brite's vampires father children upon human females, who always die in childbirth. (Female vampires, who seem to be rare, also invariably die from the violent births of their infants.) An older vampire, Christian, who owns a bar in New Orleans, takes care of Jessy after her abandonment by Zillah, who is unaware of the girl's pregnancy. After Jessy's death, Christian leaves the baby on a doorstep in Maryland, with the ironic note, "His name is Nothing. Care for him and he will bring you luck." As a teenager, Jason/Nothing indulges in all the behaviors most feared by parents of the nineties—drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual experimentation, hanging around with the wrong crowd. His adoptive parents are caricatures of middle-aged incompetence, and his teachers do their best to crush his imagination. After he searches through his parents' memorabilia and finds the long-hidden note that names him "Nothing," he flees toward the town of Missing Mile, the home of a musical duo he admires, "Lost Souls?" (the question mark is part of their name). The discovery of his foundling origin makes him feel liberated rather than betrayed, viewing his adoptive parents as strangers who’ve tried to change him from his true nature. Though he doesn’t yet know about his inhuman ancestry, instinct tells him he is fundamentally different from his foster family. Even at the age of twelve he had felt drawn to blood and fantasized about biting.

The name Nothing doesn’t make him feel "worthless," but rather enables him "to think of himself as a blank slate upon which anything could be written." He sets out to find himself in an almost literal sense, for he discovers not only his vampire nature but his biological father. Nothing makes his first kill for blood just before he runs into the vampire trio of Zillah, Molochai, and Twig. Sharing intimacy through sex and blood-drinking with Zillah, Nothing finds a surrogate family. To preserve this new relationship, he participates in the murder of one of his own friends, whom the vampires have also picked up on the highway. Nothing chooses the vampire life over human morality, sensing that the "taste of blood meant the end of aloneness.” Only later does he learn Zillah is his father and quickly abandons his halfhearted attempt to convince himself he should feel ashamed of father-son incest. After that, he devotes little or no thought to questions of "good" and "evil." Vampirism is simply his nature.

Parallel examples of alienation include Ghost, one half of the human musical duo Lost Souls?, who is set apart from ordinary people by his psychic gifts. Likewise, his partner, Steve, who feared losing the magic of childhood, has embraced music to help him cling to that magic. The old vampire, Christian, suffers his own kind of alienation. His ineffective efforts to control the impulsive violence of the young vampires make him resemble a stuffy father figure, but a permissive, indecisive one as well. Christian's weakness seems to stem from his ethical and compassionate impulses, traits that, in the eyes of Molochai, Zillah, and Twig, make him less than a true vampire. He rationalizes that he’s showing kindness to his teenage victims by allowing them to believe they will rise as undead, even though in fact he and they belong to separate species. The vampires of the younger generation, physically tougher but without Christian's retractile fangs (they must file their teeth or use razors to draw blood), feel no need to excuse their predation. Whenever possible, Christian prefers to hide or flee from discovery rather than fight back, but this restraint and his pity for his victims only seal his doom. Christian dies along with Zillah, leaving Nothing to wander with Molochai and Twig. Nothing leaves a message of love for Ghost, who summarizes the existential morality of the novel: "Maybe they were evil...My grandmother told me you shouldn't try to define evil, that the minute you think you've got it all pinned down, a kind of evil you never even thought of will sneak up behind you...I don't think anyone knows what evil is. I don't think anyone has the right to say.”

As a teenager, I would have loved this story with its rebellion against all things conventional, especially the realm of adulthood. When I read it in middle age, I wanted to shake some sense into Nothing. Nevertheless, it’s an enthrallingly unique portrayal of vampire nature that will sink its fangs into the memory of any reader.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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