By Chuck Palahniuk
A writer reveals how he and others were lured to what they believed to be a writers’ retreat only to become lab rats in a madman’s experiment.
A relatively short introduction that reveals just enough to portend suspense.
A bus cruises around town and picks up participants for the writers’ conference. The driver is dubbed Saint Gut-Free because he’s so skinny despite a proclivity for junk food. There is a poem about Saint Gut-Free titled, Landmarks and a short story by Saint Gut-Free titled, Guts, which explains why he is so skinny despite his intake of food.
Guts is supposedly Palahniuk’s most famous story. I’m not real familiar with his work, so I’ll take the author’s word for it. I usually just skim poetry, not liking it much as a literary form. So, I’ll let other readers reach conclusions about that. However, I read Guts with intense interest. According to the author, people have passed out during live readings of Guts. It’s pretty graphic. However, if an author can make graphic and gross serve a purpose in an otherwise good story, more power to him. Palahniuk makes it work quite nicely and Guts was an entertaining read.
More attendees of the workshop board the bus as it makes its way through town. One new passenger is Mother Nature.
Under Cover: A Poem About Mother Nature
This poem describes how Mother Nature tried to become a nun to lay low for an unknown reason. She, however, failed the aptitude test and the drug test.
Poems are poems and I don’t know how to evaluate poems. This one was easy to read and grasp the meaning of this untrained poem reader. So that’s a plus.
Mother Nature is a foot massager trained in the science of reflexology. She is barely making a living at it. She runs into an old friend from school who gets her into what amounts to foot massage prostitution. She makes good money. But she and her friend off their pimp and Mother Nature has to go on the lamb with the Russian mob hunting her.
This was another strange tale of sexual deviancy. Well told and well paced, the story was a delightful read. It is told in an odd, second person narrative, but Palahniuk makes it work.
It is the residents’ first week at the retreat and they find the accommodations not to their liking. The building is dusty and moldy with windows bricked up. The food is all freeze-dried. They complain. Some ask to leave. Mr. Whittier says that they are using excuses – the same excuses that kept them from writing in the outside world. Miss America suspects she is pregnant and wants to see a doctor. Mr. Whittier will not relent.
Product Improvements: A Poem About Miss America
The poem describes Miss America as a commodity that she, herself, is trying to broker and sell. She constantly looks at herself to find what is wrong and improve it.
This poem is a bit more amateurish in my untrained opinion. The model as a commodity is an old, trite, metaphor. While it is true, Palahniuk could have been more creative in his use of it.
Green Room: A Short Story by Miss America
With a prompt from Mr. Whittier, Miss America composes a story about how she met her boyfriend. The fictional her is a pitch lady, selling an exercise machine she invented herself. She is touring the country, doing local television news programs. In the green room, she meets a man hawking investment programs. He gives her advice on how to be a successful pitch person and she falls in love with him.
The story is not exciting, but passable. I can state from having worked in the newsroom that not every person, position, and movement in a broadcast has a bit of lingo to describe it. I suspect that Palahniuk has over-researched his subject just a bit here.
Miss America pulls the fire alarms in the building in an attempt to gain her release from the group. Mr. Whittier reminds the group of that legendary meeting of amateur writers that took place at Villa Diodati that led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. We learn that Lady Baglady is quite refined and cultured, belying her appearance.
The staccato pace of Palahniuk’s story narrative is starting to wear a little thin. The “this happened and this happened,” style of writing where events seemingly have no connection is effective when used sparingly. Otherwise, it is like an over-spiced meal.
Lady Baglady and her husband are wealthy socialites jetsetting to be seen at the most important fundraisers and most opulent settings. To cure the boredom of belonging to the leisure class, they take to the streets to pretend they are homeless. While huddling in a doorway, they witness the murder of a wealthy Brazilian socialite. Soon, Lady Baglady’s husband is murdered and homeless people across the city are being killed as the killers look for Lady Baglady to off the other witness.
This story was silly and the smashmouth subtext as pleasant as a punch in the face. It was painful to read.
Mr. Whittier recounts for the group the account of the time that Mary Shelley spent with her friend, Lord Byron, and others at Villa Diodoti and how that time inspired not only Frankenstein, but the creation of the modern vampire in John Polidori’s book, The Vampyre. The narrator recounts how the group met at a coffee house after responding to a advertisement and how many – the smart ones – left the coffee house without signing up. However, Reverend Godless botched the wiring to the fire alarms with the help of the Missing Link and Countess Foresight stuck the tines of plastic forks in the locks. Most are not ready to leave. Lady Baglady finally breaks down and the man with the tape recorder constantly running – the Earl of Slander – is there to document the reactions of those present.
The Earl of Slander is a freelance journalist. One day his dog is poisoned and he must take it to the vet. He discovers that his vet is a former child star of a famous television show. He left Hollywood to go to college and care for animals. The Earl pitches an editor on the story. But the editor says people don’t want stories about former child stars who make good. They want stories about former child stars wallowing in misery and degradation. The Earl decides to make his story rather than just write it.
This was a much better story than Slumming. Plausible, it has no absurd metaphor or subtext. Well paced with believable characters, it works on every level. One might think it just a little too cynical in its depiction of journalists. But it’s not all that far removed from reality.
Several of the residents vandalize the food they don’t like, dramatically reducing the overall amount of the food. Mr. Whittier eats too much turkey and has severe abdominal cramps and the narrator dreams of him dying in some dramatic fashion and how it will play out in the television miniseries he is contemplating. However, Mr. Whittier survives and is put to bed.
Brandon Whittier is a resident of a rest home. His body is old, shriveled, and nearly used up. Yet he listens to rap and rock and roll and enjoys video games. Though he has the body of an old man, he is quite young. He is the victim of a horrible genetic disease known as progeria. It causes the cells of the body to age nearly seven times faster, making old people out of young people. He tells a soccer mom nurse that he is 18 and doesn’t want to die a virgin. She takes sympathy and has sex with him. He then confesses that he is just 13 years old and blackmails her for cash lest he turn her in for rape of a minor. We learn that Brandon Whittier has done this over and over again.
Interesting how Palahniuk chose to approach the writing style of this story. There is no dialogue. The sentence structure is staccato, but much different than the staccato style I complained about earlier. In Dog Years, he makes frequent use of sentence fragments. At some points, he deliberately breaks sentences in half to make them fragments. But he makes it work. Palahniuk is a clever writer.
The writers in residence at the theater awaken to find their food rancid and spoiling. Mr. Whittier lays dying in his bed. The heat and hot water are out, due to the Duke of Vandals destroying the gas lines.
The Duke of Vandals is convicted of defacing public property after he affixes a mailing label with his artwork painted on it to a public wall. He is not making much money and is bitter about other artists who have achieved great fame. He is offered an opportunity for promotion and showing at first class art galleries. All he has to do is kill another artist who is devaluing the value of his work by flooding the market. Soon, he becomes a tool for art investors who want to increase the value of their holdings.
The story narrative was much better than the short story which had no major flaws, but was not particularly engaging or interesting.
Mrs. Clark waxes philosophic on the youthful desire for disaster to slow down life.
Tess Clark and her husband shoot a porno movie of themselves, convinced that they will sell it on the Internet and get rich. They want to finance a child. It all goes wrong when they see themselves on camera.
This story lacked any real depth or analysis besides banal philosophizing. Why were they so appalled by their own images on the video screen? We get a little foreshadowing of the Tess Clark character in that we find out the daughter they were working to have will die tragically.
The Theater residents begin to cut off fingers and toes and feeding them to the cat. The reasoning is, the more scarred a person is, the more prominently they will be portrayed in the drama that is surely to be written about them after they gain their release.
Director Denial is a social worker in a police precinct. Her secretary is responsible for ordering supplies for the precinct. When two anatomically correct sex dolls of children are mistakenly ordered, the detectives in the precinct start using the dolls to pleasure themselves. Cora takes upon herself to save the children from them.
This story is confusing in that it is hard to separate Cora Marshall from Director Denial. It is also rather offensive to detectives to assume that they’d all be perverts. But it was told and well paced.
The residents plan to move Mr. Whittier’s body to the cellar. They also try to dispose of the spoiling food by flushing it down the toilet. When the toilets clog, they lose one more fixture of civilization. The spoiled food begins to take on an aroma.
Reverend Godless is a former military man now working as a drag queen. Part of his schtick is to allow people to punch him in exchange for money. He and his friends are raising money for a holy war – against religion.
This was a limp, lifeless, useless story that didn’t even have the endearing quality of silliness.
The residents begin to collect lightbulbs from an artificial tree.
Matchmaker falls for a woman who decides she wants a better looking man with a larger penis. He hires a male prostitute to woo her and eventually dump her. He then reenters her life, hoping to catch her on the rebound.
Like all of the stories in this volume, there is a high degree of absurdity. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes it does not. It does not in this story.
The residents find the Duke of Vandals murdered. His head is crushed and his hands are clutching the exercise machine promoted by Miss America. The residents accuse Tess Clark of the murder. They also realize that one partner with whom they would have to share the royalties of their story has been eliminated.
The Nightmare Box
Tess Clark’s daughter, Cassandra shaves off her eyebrows and packs a suitcase. She then sits naked in the living room, semi-catatonic. Clark recounts how her daughter attended a gallery opening and looked into a mysterious box dubbed the Nightmare Box. It had destroyed the lives of others before, and now apparently has destroyed Cassandra’s mind as she disappears from the apartment where she lives.
This is the best story, by far, in this book so far. This story actually made for compelling reading. I was intrigued by the mysterious box and what it revealed. This is the sort of story I expected from a writer of Palahniuk’s reputation.
When the toilet, furnace, and other amenities start working again, the residents vandalize them to make their story more dramatic. Director Denial cuts off all of her toes and half of her fingers to ramp up the drama.
Sister Vigilante moves about the night of the city, using a bowling ball to kill people at random? Her reasoning? Crime goes down when a serial killer is on the loose. She’s doing her civic duty.
This story, like the last one, is dark without being silly. It is a bit abstract which makes the reader pay close attention to the prose. Another worthy entry in this collection.
Comrade Snarky is dead. She apparently died of natural causes. Chef Assassin warms up his carving knives and goes to work carving the choice cuts from her body for the residents to dine on.
Chef Assassin writes a letter to the president of a knife company, praising them for their superior product. He uses them for cooking and for carving up unfriendly food critics. He promises not to reveal that he uses their product to kill in exchange for a large cash bribe. He awaits their reply.
A short short story. Nonetheless, it works with a nice twist coming at the end.
The residents microwave and eat Cora the Cat.
Agent Tattletale is committing insurance fraud, faking a severe injury, when he is nearly caught by a private investigator. He kills the private investigator and enrolls in a correspondence course to become a private investigator himself to spy on other people who are faking disabilities.
This story works because it is plausible. Private investigators are often employed to find people faking disability claims.
Miss America apologizes for killing the cat. She is afraid that she has contracted a bacterial infection from the cat scratches. Her water breaks and she heads for her room.
The Missing Link is a Chewlah Indian out on a date with a graduate student who is doing her dissertation on sasquatches and associated phenomena. She believes that a recent plane crash was caused by a 13 year old Chewlah Indian girl who transformed – as if a werewolf – aboard the plane and caused the crash. She relates her theory to Missing Link who tells her the girl in question was his sister.
I like this story and it is a worthy entry into the lore of the werewolf. Palahniuk weaves the sasquatch legend the werewolf legend together quite nicely. If it’s been done before, I’ve never read it.
Mrs. Clark comforts Miss America as she goes into labor. She tells Miss America that being a mother is an important role, but is painful. Miss Clark goes on to tell Miss America that her daughter, Cassandra was at one of Mr. Whittier’s writer retreats when she disappeared.
The missing Cassandra is found wandering naked along a highway. She has missing digits and has been sodomized with a piece of wood. She will not tell her mother or police about her attackers. She said she mutilated herself.
This story lacked the poignancy it could have had. It lacked the punch it could have had. The story lacked.
Miss America’s labor continues and the Countess Foresight presides as midwife. Miss America is afraid Countess Foresight is going to take her baby. Chef Assassin prepares to cook another meal of the freshest meat.
Something’s Got to Give
The Countess Foresight has the gift of touching objects and knowing the truth about the object’s history. She enters an antique shop where she finds what might be a really incredible relic – the preserved fetus of Marilyn Monroe’s miscarriage. She finds it’s a fake and murders the shopkeeper. Many years later, she is on parole with an ankle bracelet attached to her.
This story was graphic and ugly – both the story narrative portion and the short story. Palahniuk achieves a high level of creepiness with his use of implied gore.
Miss America’s baby is dead and is eaten. The residents inform Miss America they are keeping her alive to be the next course.
Miss Leroy is a bartender at a second rate lodge in ski country where hot springs and geysers are common. Also common is people being boiled alive when they accidently stumble into these hot springs. One night, Miss Leroy hears a coworker screaming outside. She goes out into a snowstorm to find him nearly boiled alive. She sits with him in that snowstorm as he slowly dies. She develops frostbite that causes her to lose her lips.
The graphic telling of this tale works well once again. It is grueling, yet compelling and a little scientific explanation makes it even better.
Miss America has died, having bled out. Mrs. Clark completes the sad tale of her daughter.
Tess Clark’s daughter no longer really functions after having returned. Tess decides it’s time to end Cassandra’s life rather than let her go on living her pained existence.
Read like the conclusion of a longer story – which it was. It was not a complete story.
Miss America is dead and is eaten. Tess Clark is dead, having been murdered in her room. The Matchmaker cuts off his penis and promptly bleeds to death. The Missing Link tries to eat it and chokes to death. The residents believe they hear potential rescuers working on the lock.
Miss Sneezy is an inmate in a government operated hospital for people who are highly infectious – but unafflicted – with deadly diseases. They are a threat to all who come into contact with them. She’s a 22 year old virgin and a new resident is being brought in who is reputed to be a well endowed male. She contemplates losing her virginity and perhaps getting pregnant.
The story narrative was just over-the-top nonsense to offend the senses while adding nothing to what little story there is in this collection of stories supposedly adding up to a story. Evil Spirits, however, has a great deal of charm. I wish there had been more of it and it had gone farther.
Mr. Whittier returns to tell the residents that he faked his death and has been watching them all with hidden cameras. He says this group behaved much the way the previous group had, falling in love with their pain and embracing it. He tells Miss Sneezy that, if she wants to be loved, he will love her. He tells the residents that the door is unlocked and they are free to go.
Venus is Heaven. That riff on the title of the Ray Bradbury classic describes Mr. Whittier’s story of what happens after a manned space exploration discovers dead souls on Venus living the party life. A family piles into their car parked in the garage and turns on the motor, waiting to die. Dying – or Emigrating – is encouraged by the government to kill off the human race so that no souls are called back and they can all live the party life through eternity.
The narrative story was an unimaginative climax. The short story was brilliant! Shades of Logan’s Run, The Martian Chronicles, and I am Legend are mixed in to make the story creepy with the tongue brushing ever so lightly against the cheek.
Mr. Whittier and Miss Sneezy depart the theater. Angry that their odyssey is over and not enough people have died, Mother Nature attacks Miss Sneezy outside the theater with a knife and kills her. With Mr. Whittier outside, protesting, she and St. Gut Free lock the door and jam the knife into it. The residents ponder how their story will be written.
This was my first experience with Palahniuk and it was awful! I realize I was reading something that was a bit experimental, so I will not let it dissuade me from reading Palahniuk in the future.
This book features so much gratuitous gore that I’m surprised blood did not flow from the pages. Sometimes, it was employed effectively such as in Guts. In other places, it was beyond gratuitous and was used perhaps to distract the reader from the fact that the story – especially the main story – lacked any real depth.
Many of the short stories were quite entertaining and engaging. But Slumming was the most foolish piece of drivel I’ve read since I quit reading newspaper comics. It was almost bad enough to stop me from finishing the book.
The mains story was pretentious and pointless. These people were supposed to be writers. I guess Palahniuk made them writers because they had to be something. Nothing in the story had anything to do about the suffering of the artist or writer, which I assumed was going to be the prevailing theme. Instead, there was no prevailing theme.
Characters were assigned a motivation that belied any semblance of reality. The self-mutilation, cannibalism, and violence were all vain attempts to disgust the reader. Palahniuk’s use of them were like the maker of a teen thriller putting in gotcha scene after gotcha scene. I expected much better from Chuck Palahniuk.
If you are a Palahniuk fan, read Haunting if you must. If you’re not a fan, avoid it at all costs.