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      Sometimes a man grows tired of carrying everything the world heaps upon his head. The shoulders sag, the spine bows cruelly, the muscles tremble with weariness. Hope of relief begins to die. And the man must decide whether to cast off his load or endure it until his neck snaps like a brittle twig in autumn.

      Such was my situation late in my thirty-third year. Although I deserved everything the world had heaped on - and torments after death far worse than any the world could threaten: the torture of my skeleton, the rape and dismemberment of my immortal soul - though I deserved all that and more, I found that I could no longer bear the weight.

      I realized I didn't have to bear it, you see. I came to understand that I had a choice. It must have been difficult for Christ himself to withstand the agonies of the cross - the filth, the thirst, the terrible spikes raping the jellied flesh of his hands - knowing he had a choice. And I am not Christ, not even by half.

      My name is Andrew Compton. Between 1977 and 1988 I killed twenty-three boys and young men in London. I was seventeen years old when I began, twenty-eight when they caught me. All the time I was in prison, I knew that if they ever let me out I would continue killing boys. But I also knew they would never let me out.

      My boys and young men were transients in the city: friendless, hungry, drunk and strung out on the excellent Pakistani heroin that has coursed through the veins of London since the swinging sixties. I gave them good food, strong tea, a warm place in my bed, what few pleasures my body could provide. In return, all I asked was their lives. Sometimes they appeared to give those as readily as anything else.

      I remember a sloe-eyed skinhead who went home with me because he said I was a nice white bloke, not a bleeding queer like most of these others that chatted him up in the pubs of Soho. (What he was doing in the pubs of Soho, I cannot tell you.) He did not seem inclined to revise his opinion even as I sucked his cock and slid two greased fingers into his anus. I noticed later that he had a dotted line tattooed in scarlet round his throat, along with the words CUT HERE. I had only to follow directions. ('You look like a bleeding queer,' I'd told his headless corpse, but young Mr White England had nothing to say for himself anymore.)

      I killed most of the twenty-three by cutting. By severing their major arteries with a knife or a razor after they were insensible from drink. I killed them this way not out of cowardice or from a wish to avoid struggle; though I am not a large man, I could have overcome any of my half-starved, drug-addled waifs in a fair fight. I killed them by cutting because I appreciated the beautiful objects that their bodies were, the bright ribbons of blood coursing over the velvet of their skin, the feel of their muscles parting like soft butter. I drowned two in the bath, and choked one with the laces of his own Dr Marten boots as he lay in a drunken stupor. But mostly I killed them by cutting.

      This is not to say that I took them to pieces for pleasure. I found no joy in gross mutilation or dismemberment, not then; it was the subtle whisper and slice of the razor that appealed to me. I liked my boys as they were, big dead dolls with an extra weeping crimson mouth or two. I would keep them with me for as much as a week, until the smell in my flat grew obvious. I did not find the odour of death unpleasant. It was rather like cut flowers left too long in stagnant water, a heavy sickish sweetness that coated the nostrils and curled into the back of the throat with every breath.

      But the neighbours complained, and I would have to invent some excuse or other, something about my waste disposal backing up or my toilet having overflowed. (Humiliating, and ultimately futile, for it was a neighbour who called the police in the end.) I would leave a boy in my armchair when I went to work, and he would be waiting patiently for me when I came home. I would take him into my bed and cradle his creamy smoothness all night. For a day or two days or a week I wouldn't feel alone. Then it would be time to let another one go.

      I would use a saw to cut him in half at the waist, to separate the arms from the torso, to bisect the legs at the knee. I would wrestle the segments into bulging bags of wet garbage, where their odd angles and powerful stench might be disguised, and leave them out for collection. I would drink whisky until the flat spun. I would vomit in the basin and sob myself to sleep, having lost at love again. I did not come to appreciate the aesthetics of dismemberment until much later.

      But for now I sat in a dank cell in Her Majesty's Prison Painswick, in Lower Slaughter some thirty or so miles south of the industrial wasteland of Birmingham. These lurid appellations might seem designed to terrify and titillate the soul, and so they do. Look on any map of England and you'll find them, along with places called Grimsby, Kettle Crag, Fitful Head, Mousehole, Devil's Elbow, and Stool End Farm. England is a country that spares no resonance or descriptive colour in its place-names, forbidding though they may be.

      I'd looked around my cell without much interest when they brought me in five years ago. I knew I was classed as a Category A prisoner. (D was the least dangerous sort; C and B types you mightn't want to turn your back on; A was, of course, the ravening killer.) The papers had dubbed me 'The Eternal Host' and invested my unremarkable black-and-white visage with a dread that bordered on the talismanic. The contents of my flat had been lovingly inventoried a hundred times over. My trial was a legal circus of the vilest sort. The possibility of my escape was deemed highly dangerous to the public. I would remain Category A until the day I died with my eyes fixed on some bleak eternity beyond these four mouldering stone walls.

      I could receive no visitors without approval from the prison governor and close supervision. I didn't care; everyone I had ever loved was dead. I could be denied education and recreation, but at that time there was nothing more in life I wanted to learn, no fun I wanted to have. I must endure a light burning constantly in my cell, all night, all day, until the outline of it was seared into my corneas. All the better, I thought then, to stare at these hands steeped in blood.

      Aside from my blazing bulb and my guilty hands, I had an iron bed bolted to the wall and covered with a thin lumpy mattress, a rickety table and chair, and a pot to piss in. I often reminded myself that at least I had a pot to piss in, but this was cold comfort indeed - quite literally so on winter mornings in Painswick. I had all these things inside a stone box of a cell measuring three and a half by four metres.

      I wondered how many of Her Majesty's prisoners realized the extra half-metre along one wall was a subtle form of torture. (As Oscar Wilde was being hounded in chains round the prison yard, he remarked that if this was how Her Majesty treated prisoners, she had no business having any.) When I looked at this wall for a long time, which was the only way I could look at it, the wrong geometry began to hurt my eyes. For more than a year the imperfect square tormented me. I visualized all four walls grinding in, cutting off that dreadful extra half-metre, beginning to crumble around me. Then gradually I got used to it, and that chilled me as much as the torment had done. I've never liked getting used to things, especially when I am given no choice in the matter.

      Once they realized I wasn't going to make trouble, I was given all the notebooks and pencils I wanted. I was seldom allowed out of my cell except for solitary exercise and showers; sodden joyless meals were brought to me by silent guards with faces like the judgement at the end of time. I could do no harm with my pencils save driving one into my own eye, and I wore them down too dull for that.

      I filled twenty notebooks my first year, thirty-one my second, nineteen my third. At this time I was as close to true remorse as I ever came. It was as if I had been in a dream that lasted eleven years, and had woken from it into a world I barely recognized. How had I ever done twenty-three killings? What had made me want to? I attempted to plumb the depths of my soul with words. I dissected my childhood and family (stultifying but hardly traumatic), my sexual history (abortive), my career in various branches of the civil service (utterly without distinction, except for the number of times I was fired for insubordination to my superiors).

      This done, and little learned, I began to write about the things that interested me now. I found myself with a great many descriptions of murders and sex acts performed upon dead boys. Small details began to return to me, such as the way a fingerprint would stay in the flesh of a corpse's thigh as if pressed into wax, or a cold thread of semen would sometimes leak out of a flaccid penis as I rolled it about on my tongue.

      The only constant thread running through my prison notebooks was a pervasive loneliness with no discernible beginning and no conceivable end. But a corpse could never walk away.

      I came to understand that these memories were my salvation. I no longer wanted to know why I had done such things if it meant I wouldn't want to do them anymore. I put my notebooks aside forever. I was different, and that was all. I had always known I was different; I could not trudge through life contentedly chewing whatever cud I found in my mouth, as those around me seemed to do. My boys were only another thing that set me apart from the rest.

      Someone had loved my boys once upon a time, someone who did not have to steal their lives to show that love. Each had been someone's baby once. But so had I, and what good did it ever do me? By all accounts, I emerged from the womb quite blue, with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, and my state of life or death was disputed for several minutes before I sucked in a great gulp of air and began to breathe on my own. The boys I killed may have been strapping infants, but at the time of their deaths they were intravenous drug users who shared needles as if borrowing one another's pocket handkerchiefs, who often traded blowjobs for cash or a fix. Of those I took to bed with me while they were still alive, not one asked me to use a condom, and not one expressed concern when I swallowed his sperm. I suspected later that I might have actually saved lives by killing some of them.

      I was never one to moralize, and how could I argue ethics now? There is no excuse for wanton, random murder. But I came to understand that I didn't need an excuse. I needed only a reason, and the terrible joy of the act was reason enough. I wanted to return to my art, to fulfill my obvious destiny. I wanted the rest of my life to do as I pleased, and I had no doubt what that would be. My hands itched for the blade, for the warmth of fresh blood, for the marble smoothness of flesh three days dead.

      I decided to exercise my freedom of choice.

      Before I began killing boys, and afterward when I couldn't find one or hadn't the energy to go looking, there was another thing I would sometimes do. It began as a crude masturbation technique and ended very near mysticism. At the trial they called me necrophiliac without considering the ancient roots of the word, or its profound resonance. I was friend of the dead, lover of the dead. And I was my own first friend and lover.

      It first happened when I was thirteen. I would lie on my back and relax my muscles slowly, limb by limb, fibre by fibre. I would imagine my organs turning to a bitter soup, my brain beginning to liquefy inside my skull. Sometimes I drew a razor across my chest and let the blood run down the sides of my ribcage and pool in the hollow of my belly. Sometimes I enhanced my natural pallor with blue-white makeup, and later a trace of purple here and there, my own artistic interpretation of lividity and gaseous stain. I tried to escape what seemed a hateful prison of flesh; to imagine myself outside my body was the only way I could love it.

      After doing this for a time, I began to feel certain changes in my body. I never managed to make my spirit separate completely from my flesh. If I had, I probably wouldn't have come back. But I achieved a hovering state between consciousness and void, a state where my lungs seemed to stop pulling in air and my heart to cease beating. I could still sense a subliminal murmur of bodily function, but no pulse, no breath. I thought I could feel my skin loosening from the connective tissues, my eyes drying out behind blue-tinged lids, my molten core beginning to cool.

      I did this in prison from time to time, without the makeup or razors of course, remembering some boy or other, imagining my rancid living body to be his dear dead flesh. It took me five years to realize that my talent might be put to another use, one that would allow me to someday hold a real corpse again.

      I spent most of my time lying on my bunk. I breathed the heady, meaty smell of hundreds of men eating and sweating and pissing and shitting and fucking and living together in cramped, dirty quarters, often with only one chance to shower each week. I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythms of my own body, the myriad paths of my blood, the sweat beading on my skin, the steady pull and release of my lungs, the soft electric hum of my brain and all its tributaries.

      I wondered just how much I could slow it all down, how much of it I could stop entirely. And I wondered, if I was successful, whether I would be able to start it all up again. What I had in mind was much more advanced than my old game of playing dead. I would have to be dead enough to fool the guards, the nursing officer, and almost certainly a doctor. But I had read about Hindu fakirs who stopped their own hearts, who allowed themselves to be buried for weeks without oxygen. I knew it could be done. And I thought I could do it.

      I halved the amount I ate, which had never been much in prison. On the outside I had been something of a gourmand. I often treated my boys to a restaurant meal before the evening's festivities, though the fare I chose was usually too exotic for them: lamb vindalo with flaky nan bread, Chinese pork buns, jellied eels, stuffed grape leaves, Vietnamese emerald curry, Ethiopian steak tartare, and the like. Prison food was either gristly, starchy, or cabbagey. I had no trouble leaving half of it on the plate. I knew brains would serve me better than brawn anyway; they always had. And I felt an emaciated look would aid my task somehow.

      ('Off your feed then, Compton?' was the only comment I ever received on this matter from the guard who delivered and removed my trays. I managed a listless nod, aware that he was trying to be friendly in his fashion. Some of the guards would try to talk to me now and then, presumably so they could go home and tell the wife and kiddies the Eternal Host had spoken to them today. But I didn't want him to remember this particular exchange.)

      One day I deliberately gashed my forehead open on the bars. Telling the guard I'd tripped and banged my skull earned me a trip to the infirmary. I was in handcuffs and leg irons the entire time, but I managed to have a look round as a garrulous nursing officer swabbed out my wound and stitched it up.

      'Did you have Hummer in here?' I asked, referring to an A- wing prisoner who had died of heart failure the month before.

      'Old Artie? No, we didn't know the cause of death, so they took him out in an ambulance. Autopsied him in Lower Slaughter and sent him home to his family, what was left of 'em. Artie was in for shooting his wife and son, you know, but there was a daughter away at school. I expect she was none too pleased to get Daddy back, eh?'

      'What do they do with the organs after an autopsy?' I asked, partly so he wouldn't remember my asking only one question, partly out of honest curiosity.

      'Toss 'em back in every which way and sew up the trench. Oh, and they save the brains for study. Murderers' brains in particular. I'll wager someone gets yours in a jar of spirits one day, Mr Compton.'

      'Perhaps,' I said. And perhaps someone would. But not a grinning sawbones in Lower Slaughter, not if I could help it.

      The nursing officer took a phial of blood from my arm that day, though I didn't know why. A week later I was hauled off to the infirmary again, where I learned something that would help me more than I could fathom.

      'HIV-positive?' I asked the pale, sweaty nursing officer. 'What does that mean?'

      'Well, Mr Compton, maybe nothing.' He pinched a slender pamphlet between the tips of his thumb and forefinger and gingerly passed it to me. I noticed that he was wearing rubber gloves. 'But it means you could develop AIDS.'

      I studied the pamphlet with interest, then looked back at the officer's chagrined face. The whites of his eyes were webbed with red, and he looked as if he'd forgotten to shave for a few days. 'It says here the virus can be transmitted by sexual contact or through the blood,' I noted. 'You sewed up my cut last week. Wasn't that dangerous for you?'

      'We ... I don't. ..' He stared at his gloved fingers and shook his head, almost sobbing. 'No one knows.'

      I brought my shackled wrists up and coughed into my hand to hide a tiny wicked grin.

      Back in my cell, I read the pamphlet twice and tried to remember what I had heard about this malady borne on the fluids of love. The odd news article had caught my interest back before I was arrested, but I'd never been a great follower of current events, and I hadn't seen a paper since my trial. There were some in the prison library, but I spent my precious hours there reading books. I didn't see how news of the world could help me any longer.

      Even so, I remembered a mind-boggling assortment of reports: headlines shrilling HOMO PLAGUE, calm assertions that it was all a Labour Party conspiracy, hysterical speculations that anyone could catch it by almost any means. I'd managed to ascertain that gay men and intravenous drug users were at special risk. Though I wondered whether any of my boys might have been exposed, I never dreamed I could catch it myself. Most of my contact with them had occurred after their deaths, and I assumed any virus would have died with them. But now it looked as though viruses were hardier than boys.

      Well, Andrew, I told myself, anyone who violates the sweet sanctity of a dead boy's ass cannot expect to get away scot- free. Now forget that you may become ill, for you are not ill now, and remember only that this virus in your blood makes people afraid of you. Any time someone is afraid of you, you can use it to your own advantage.

      My supper tray arrived. I ate a sliver of boiled beef, a soggy leaf of cabbage, and a few crumbs of dry bread. Then I lay on my bunk, stared at the pale blue network of veins under the skin of my arm, and plotted my leave of Painswick.

 © 1996 Poppy Z. Brite

This electronic version of an excerpt of Exquisite Corpse is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author.

This excerpt may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission.

Exquisite Corpse is published by Simon and Shuster. ISBN 0 684 822 547


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