Troy Patterson
April 30, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The voodoo altar in the office of Poppy Z. Brite has fallen into disuse. That space in her New Orleans home — featuring Mary and Vishnu, bottles of Cuervo and embalming fluid, and multiple translations of her instantly classic gothic novels — is no more an index of what she’s about than anything else on display: the Hello Kitty menagerie; a copy of a eulogy for Huey P. Long; the photo, pasted above her desk for inspiration, of Michael Jordan hoisting a championship-winning jump shot.

It is a relic of her relative youth, when, to use the shorthand Brite despises, she was ”the reigning queen of horror and erotica.” In 1992, her first novel, a lush vampire story called Lost Souls, bewitched everyone from the Book-of-the-Month Club to Courtney Love, who later chose Brite to write her biography. She drew literary praise and hundreds of thousands of readers, and her gorgeous, gory trio of early novels is still required reading for angsty teens, partly due to the outlandish figure Brite once cut. ”I used to talk about how I wanted to taste human flesh before I die — that sort of thing,” Brite says. ”I would be curious to taste it, but you don’t have to yammer about it in every interview. I’m still interested in a lot of goofy, weird stuff, but I’ve also calmed down a lot. The trouble is a lot of my fans are still 16 and ready to tell me how I’m selling out.” She’s 36 now. She’d rather be bird-watching.

Brite’s latest, Liquor, is set in the New Orleans restaurant world and decidedly non-supernatural — ”this bizarre combination of A Confederacy of Dunces and Kitchen Confidential,” in the words of her friend Neil Gaiman. The leap is scary, and not merely because she’s gotten death threats from fans who feel betrayed. Despite being a cult superstar, Brite, having exhausted whatever small fortune she’s accrued, is something of a struggling freelancer. She auctions her own first editions on the Internet when one of the stray cats she’s rescued needs shots. ”It’s a very brave thing,” Gaiman continues. ”Another serial killer vampire book by Poppy would get a huge advance.” But having already been All the Way Out There, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.

A week after Mardi Gras, Brite’s got an excellent table at a superb restaurant, Commander’s Palace. She’s wearing a dress printed with winged lions and funky heels that boost her from 5 foot 1. While her husband, a heavyset chef named Chris DeBarr, gossips about celebrity cooks, she demolishes the tasso shrimp henican with Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, wiping the plate clean with a tiny middle finger. ”I’ve been coming here since I was 3,” she says. That was about the time she started reading, and — excepting a standing fantasy of being the coroner of Orleans Parish — she’s only ever wanted to be a writer since. Melissa Ann Brite began sending out short stories at 12 and sold her first, at 18, to a cult magazine called The Horror Show. ”I never really set out to be a horror writer,” Brite says. ”I just happened to make my first sale to the horror market, and it was a genre I liked, so I started more consciously working in it.”

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