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Revisiting Poppy Z. Brite's "The Lazarus Heart"

Anybody who knew me in my late teens could probably tell you I was utterly obsessed with James O'Barr's gothic series The Crow. From the original comics to the film and TV series to the short run of original novels... I ate it up. But there was always one Crow title that stood out in my memory, one that I remember striking me as odd when I first read it. Last week, while perusing my bookshelves for my next read, I came across my trade paperback copy of The Lazarus Heart by Poppy Z. Brite.

Keep in mind, I was raised in a rural setting. I grew up on a southeastern Iowa farm in a very conservative county and then moved around to other rural Iowa communities. I didn't really get to experience city life and the larger world until I left home at eighteen to live in Cedar Rapids. To put it bluntly, I was a pretty damn sheltered kid.

So that might explain why I originally found Poppy Z. Brite's novel so odd. Teenage me kept scratching his head while turning the pages. My young hayseed brain just couldn't wrap itself around strange new terms like "crossdresser" and "transsexual." And BDSM? Forget about it!

Well anybody who's read my novel Vengeance For My Valentine knows that certainly isn't the case anymore.

So there I stood in my office, looking at the cover of The Lazarus Heart, flipping it over to read the synopsis on the back, and trying to remember anything about the story. I vaguely remembered there being twins, one of them trans. Was that one the Crow? Or another character? Shit, I couldn't remember, so I decided to give it another read, to take a stroll down memory lane.

From the first page, I was hooked. I was seventeen years old again, my eyes hungrily scanning each line while The Cure, Crüxshadows, and Trust Obey blared in my headphones. When I reached the resurrection scene, I found myself going back to read it again... and again! I looked up from the book and told my wife I only wish I could write as beautifully and as visually as Poppy Z. Brite. I stayed up well into the wee hours, still as a statue until the time came to turn to the next page. In two days (I'm a terribly slow reader), I finished it, and I sat for a long time completely blown away.

I’m glad I decided to revisit this book with older, more enlightened eyes, because it is tragically beautiful! Brite’s ability to paint pictures with his words—or in the case of The Lazarus Heart’s subject matter, conjure striking sepia photographs—is simply unmatched. The characters’ pain is almost tangible, their sorrow contagious. The honest depiction of New Orleans as simultaneously breathtaking and dirty effortlessly transports the reader to those rain-drenched streets. The DuBuois twins’ backstory is both tragic and beautiful, and their bond is so strong it's no wonder the crows decided to step in to deliver vengeance for the brother’s murder. But that wasn't the only injustice addressed in the book. No, the novel tackles the endless struggle of non-cis/non-hetero individuals in a bigoted, unaccepting world: the constant fear of discovery, ridicule, unemployment, violence, and even death. The Lazarus Heart is about hate and intolerance, and it's about fighting back against that hate and intolerance.

The protagonist, Jared Poe, is amazing in how he's written. His sorrow and rage constantly get the better of him, and he often strays off course, seeking out personal vengeance instead of the mission laid out for him by the crow. Which, of course, is a big time no-no. Although it's his own damn dumb fault, I love that he isn't invincible. His reckless quest for revenge takes its toll, and he pays for it. Pain and grief make us irrational. We lose our heads, which honestly is why I don't blame Star Lord for the events of Avengers: Infinity War. He, like Jared Poe in this book, is only human, and humans are often driven by emotion in lieu of common sense. Honestly, what would you do?

As I contemplated the story, I wondered why it was never adapted to film. After all, it‘s not like there isn’t precedent for it. The fourth film The Crow: Wicked Prayer starring Edward Furlong was adapted from the novel of the same name by Norman Partridge, and that movie sucked! Oh my god, that was awful! And I lay much of the blame on David Boreanaz’s cornball performance. It wasn’t exactly Dennis Hopper’s finest hour, either. Check it out, but don't say I didn't warn you.

So why didn’t Poppy’s novel get any love?

Well, as it turns out, it kinda did... Kinda.

From what information I could find online, apparently the third film The Crow: Salvation was loosely—and I cannot stress the word ”loosely” enough—based on the premise of The Lazarus Heart. Both stories feature a man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for his lover’s murder, both feature dirty cops, and... well... there’s a crow. That’s it. As I recall, any and all traces of LGBTQ themes are absent from the film. If the filmmakers really were adapting Poppy’s story, they straight-washed the everliving shit out of it.

And that really pisses me off.

For a series that has always seemed to embrace the androgyny aesthetic, you'd think they wouldn't have issues with LGBTQ themes. And The Crow: City of Angels certainly didn't shy away from the subject of BDSM. Whether the scriptwriter, producers, director, or even Miramax themselves are to blame, clearly somebody in the chain of command said "No homo" when they greenlit The Crow: Salvation.

But back to the present. I've been wondering if, even though I didn't understand the novel's themes back when I was seventeen, did it leave its bloody mark on me? Did this book plant the seed that would eventually germinate into Vengeance For My Valentine? Did Lucrece DuBuois serve as the inspiration for Eric Hammond? For years, I struggled with Eric's character. There was something nagging me about him, something I was missing. Characters have a tendency to run away from you, leaving the author to record their exploits rather than dictate them. I didn't make Eric transgender... I simply listened when he confessed to me that he was. Once I finally knew Eric, this twenty year labor of love at long last began to take its final shape. I think on some level, I may have Poppy Z. Brite to thank for that.

If you're a fan of The Crow, urban fantasy, horror, New Orleans, or stories with LGBTQ characters, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of The Lazarus Heart. Of all the original Crow novels, it definitely stands out as the best in my opinion. The only other one I've read that even comes close is Chet Williamson's Clash By Night. Seriously, check it out. You won't be sorry.

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