The Devil You Know
by Poppy Z. Brite
Gauntlet Press (2005)
If Poppy Z. Brite didn't reside in New Orleans, you'd swear her collection The Devil You Know was nothing short of a morbid preoccupation with the historically vibrant city. This collection of short stories, the majority of which are set in New Orleans come before the devastating events of Hurricane Katrina (published as a collection in 2005 prior to the disaster). Through a present day lens The Devil You Know feels like a time capsule of something magical that may very well have been lost in Katrina's aftermath. But I speak only as someone new to Brite's work and unfamiliar with the goings on of Louisiana life. I can say confidently, however, that she offers readers a lens through which to appreciate the Big Easy.
The collection contains thirteen stories originally published between 1999 and 2003. And there is a surprising thread that runs through quite a few of the stories: food. To be specific, the eclectic blend of cuisine found in New Orleans via its restaurants. With a region so saturated in gothic charm and folklore, it's interesting that Brite used culinary delights as a through-line in this collection. As a person who enjoys a great meal too, however, I can see the allure. And I'll be damned if there wasn't a scene or two through the book that made me hungry.
Food isn't the only thing on the menu, so to speak. Brite offers an assortment of characters that range from quirky to vengeful to indulgent.
"The Devil You Know" kicks off the collection as a short story in the middle of Mardi Gras as the Devil and a feline companion getting ready to partake in the festivities. A story inspired by the art of Alan M. Clark, it ably dances between the surreal and the topical.
"Oh Death, Where Is Thy Spatula?", one of the food-themed stories of the book, wound up being one of my favorites from the collection. It's about a coroner who discovers her favorite chef has died and she starts looking into the black magic of New Orleans for a way to have him--and his talents--back in her life.
There is also "Lantern Marsh", a story I originally read in the anthology, October Dreams. Plus, a couple of stories based in the worlds of The Matrix and Hellboy. "Burn, Baby, Burn" stars the Hellboy character Liz Sherman the firestarter, and became another favorite of mine.
It's a collection that holds the two big loves of Brite's, New Orleans and food, but also offers a broad spectrum to her work. The quality should come as no surprise to fans of her work, as she's managed to garner the acclaim of Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, and Peter Straub no less. If those writers will go on record to praise her work, who am I to argue?