I cannot reveal the details of our shocking expeditions, or catalogue even partly the worst of the trophies adorning the nameless museum we prepared in the great stone house where we jointly dwelt, alone and servantless. Our museum was a blasphemous, unthinkable place, where with the satanic taste of neurotic virtuosi we had assembled an universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
These rooms were where our museum would be set up. At last I came to agree with Lois that only the plundering of graves might cure us of the most stifling ennui we had yet suffered.
—Poppy Z. Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood”
Lovecraft’s mythos is a true mythology. The stories have become generational, told and retold, embellished and expanded upon, adapted to the syntax of the era. “The Hound” is as decadent a story as Lovecraft ever wrote, and its spawn include “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan and “Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire, both of which reiterate the old tale with variations, examining new aspects of the strange relationship that binds the two morbid companions in their darkling quest.
So does Poppy Z. Brite (AKA Billy Martin) in “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood,” except here the tale is rewoven from the bones up. More explicit, more elaborate; not a sequel or prequel or continuation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound” but a reimagining. Putting onto the page all the things that Lovecraft himself never would: blood, sex, necrophilia, bestiality, a touch of actual New Orleans voodoo-lore.
Which, in the hand of someone with less skill, taste, or imagination, could easily have slipped over into edgelord territory. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon is an example where efforts to put on the page what Lovecraft left off are sometimes claimed to have crossed the invisible and wavering line of good taste; to have pushed past “explicit” into “exploitation.” Brite plays a careful balancing act here, more extreme than Lovecraft was, less explicit than Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” series would be.
It isn’t pornography, to put it bluntly. It’s art.
Nor is it an effort to do Lovecraft one better, though readers can judge for themselves which version of the story they prefer. The setting has changed, from Lovecraft’s London to Brite’s New Orleans; from the 1900s to the 1980s. St. John and his nameless narrator companion have been replaced by Louis and Howard, though their roles really haven’t changed that much. Louis/St. John is still the more active and daring of the pair, possessed of the dark vitality and hunger for sensation that drives the plot of the story; Howard is more passive, yin to his yang, submissive (sometimes literally) but also enabling. Like other post-Lovecraft takes on the characters, the homosocial bond between the two becomes explicit (and homosexual or bisexual) in this later incarnation.
If published decade or two earlier, that might have been a problem. Stories with LGBTQ characters that come to a bad end can sometimes be interpreted as moral fables. No such message here need be understood or implied: Louis and Howard aren’t punished because they end up lovers. Being a same-sex couple isn’t the key point here of failure here: it’s being a pair of graverobbers and digging up the wrong sorcerer’s grave.
It’s not a healthy relationship, nor was it ever meant to be. Two people egging each other on to greater and greater depths, pushing until they cross a threshold and invite supernatural retribution. This is the aspect of fable to “The Hound” that is missing from many other stories by Lovecraft, and Brite’s story captures that very well.
“His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood” is one of Poppy Z. Brite’s most-anthologized stories; good places to read it include Cthulhu 2000 (1999) and Brite’s anthology Wormwood: A Collection of Stories (1995).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).