“This guy had wings,” said Ghost. “He flew away.” –Lost Souls
384 pages, Dell, September 1992
373 pages, Delacorte Press, October 1993
10 pages, Camelot Books and Gifts, 2000
I was barely eighteen and home for my first real break from freshman year of college. I’d taken the bus home. I ran into a drugstore to find something to read for the trip back (five or six hours, if I remember correctly, and without a book or something to make me look occupied, I’m a magnet for crazies who think I want to either chat or get hit on for the entire trip) and grabbed the book that looked most likely from the rack and quickly checked out.
I spent the entire trip wrapped up in Steve and Ghost; Missing Mile, North Carolina; neon-pastel New Orleans; poor, lost Nothing; a van filled with lunacy hurtling down back roads bringing disaster in its wake; Christian the bartender; Ann and her brittle bravado; ghosts and music and magic and blood.
I’ve read Lost Souls so many times at this point I could probably quote it to you, even though I have it nowhere near me at the time. This one’s written on the inside of my eyelids, on sleepless nights: “I believe in whatever gets you through the night…Night is the hardest time to be alive. For me, anyway. It lasts so long, and four a.m. knows all my secrets.”
I sent the book to a friend who was struggling, right before he lost himself and I never saw him again. I like to think that somewhere, wherever he went, he brought the book with him, that it was his pillow and his Bible and his comfort when he needed it. I know he knew plenty of nights, and maybe having this made them knowing his secrets not as terrible.
This book made me want to visit New Orleans; I’ve never given up the hope that someday I’ll make that a reality. I’m intelligent enough to know that Lost Souls’ New Orleans isn’t the one I’ll find there, but optimistic enough to think I’ll see a little of that magic peeking at me around the corners, if I look hard enough, if I turn my head quickly enough.
Drawing Blood came out not long after; it wasn’t about my beloved Steve and Ghost, but I loved it just the same. Love and loss and murder and longing and art; Trevor and Zach finding one another and holding each other up when they weren’t sure they could go on anymore. At the heart of Brite’s work is love, and loyalty; things I love, things I cherish, things I relate to. And there were some recurring characters in the book, which was like coming upon old friends; I actually remember cheering when they appeared on the page (much like I might do when seeing friends unexpectedly in real life.)
Brite has written plenty of other books, all of which I’ve read. For various reasons, I’ve liked (and even loved) some of the others (and I own most of them, some of them signed copies – I especially recommend the short story collections) – I think this is because you can always hear Brite’s voice, no matter the subject matter. But these two will always stand out to me. They came into my life at just the right time, when I was struggling to become an adult, moving away from my childhood, growing my own wings and learning to use them. They showed me other people who were struggling, and who made mistakes, and who were still heroic – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake.
(True story: when I went to England junior year of college, some of Brite’s books came with me. In a major spillage accident – actually not my fault, for once – they were all ruined, and the perpetrator gave me money to replace them. So I have British versions of Lost Souls and one of the short story collections, and I love the way they look and their feel in my hands and the memories they bring me.)
It’s now, though, and we’re in a world where your favorite authors are only a screen away, right? Well, sometimes. It’s not like you can just reach out and touch Stephen King. (OK, you’ve come a little closer. You can tweet him now. I’m just thinking, sheer volume-wise, you don’t have much chance of him replying to you.) I’ve been following Brite’s blog since I started reading blogs (and just for the sake of clarity, Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin, so please don’t freak out at the change of name/pronoun) and once I joined Twitter I became his follower – and listen. When an author you’ve admired for almost 20 years replies to one of your tweets? YOU FREAK OUT. (OK, maybe YOU don’t. But I do. Because I’m a little bit of a spaz.) I also follow him on Facebook, and we’ve spoken there; he’s not as well-known, perhaps, as other authors (and is effectively retired from writing now) so he interacts regularly with his fans.
Which is how I got a signed copy of Stay Awake.
Stay Awake is one of the only Brite works I never got to read, and somehow, luckily, it had never been spoiled for me. It was a 10-page chapbook continuing the story of Steve and Ghost and oh, how I wanted it. But it was an extremely limited run, and I’d never been able to find it online (because who would part with their copy? Seriously, it’s become a collector’s item.) Martin blogged that he had found a number of copies he’d put away and was selling them online, and could personalize them, if we’d like. I leapt on that like a kangaroo released from…um…wherever it is kangaroos might be released from. Kangaroo court, maybe. LEAP.
And not long after, I had a copy of my long-awaited Stay Awake in my hands. (Signed. To AMY, no less. SIGH TOTAL AMAZING HAPPINESS.) I saved it for the new year; I thought it was an excellent book to start the year with. I was right. I opened it and started reading and I was eighteen again; it was ten pages right after Lost Souls ended, and it took things in a direction I hadn’t seen them going. (Maybe a direction I wouldn’t have taken them, but I’m not the author. I’m just the consumer, and I’m not complaining, just surprised.) My only complaint is, ONLY ten pages. I’m never going to know any more about Steve and Ghost (well, there’s one brief story about them in one of the collections) so I wanted more. Of course I did. Martin has complained that people will always want more Steve and Ghost; no matter what he wrote after Lost Souls, no matter how good he thought it was, people would always say, “But when are you going to write about Steve and Ghost again?” And that has to be disheartening, especially when you don’t have any more stories about them to give. When you’re tapped out. When you’re trying to put out more work, but it’s something else, and people are appreciative, but keep saying, “But what about…?” Yeah. I get it.
Painting of Nothing from “Lost Souls” by Billy Martin, available in his Etsy shop
However, I’m one of the “but what about…?” people. I’ll admit it. I’ve read everything else he’s ever written…but I originally fell in love with Steve and Ghost, and that kind of love, man, that lasts, you know?
Someday I’ll go to New Orleans; I’ll walk through the streets, I’ll marvel at the architecture and have some beignets and muffuletta and look for magic and ghosts and thank Billy Martin for planting the idea in me that I needed to visit this city, at least once, before I leave the world; I’ll throw in some thanks for his beautiful words along the way. I have certain authors I feel very loyal to; they’ve become more than icons, more than admired – they’ve become part of my extended family. He’s one of those people. And I love having him here, giving me his dark, twisted worldview and showing me that you can be broken, and you can be forgotten by the majority of the world, but you will find your people. And those people will love you, and love you, and love you.