“Instead of copying current literature styles, – he further elaborates, – I base my work on poetry or spoken-word storytelling, where timing is all-important and rhetorical devices must work to remind the reader of the story’s total content, at all times. For best cumulative effect. With that in mind, all my single-sentence paragraphs and echoing choruses and miss-stated ‘burnt tongue’ deliberate mistakes are methods to slow the reader and control the speed of the plot. It’s a style based more on ‘beats’ of time, like music. Beyond that, I can’t control the reader’s interpretation of the story’s content. I do make an effort to never state my personal issue around each work. To do so would impose a ‘correct’ interpretation and exclude the reader’s experience and participation.”
That’s the biggest purpose of religious gathering: permission to look terrible in public. We used to go to church to confess our worst behaviour, to be heard and forgiven, then to be redeemed and accepted back into our community
Palahniuk is a structurally experimental writer, his latest novel Haunted being the strongest example to date. Often you get the impression that how to tell the story is as important as the story itself to him. Haunted is a collection of short horror stories formed into a novel. A number of writers are invited to a writer’s residence with the promise of peace and tranquillity, instead they find themselves imprisoned in a bizarre theatre, forced to create stories. “Odd as this sounds, – explains Chuck, – I wanted Haunted to consist of as many ‘textures’ as possible. I loved writing the little travel book Fugitives and Refugees, because it combined interviews with stories with essays with recipes with definitions with lists, etc. All those textures keep the reader’s eye interested. The page never looks boring or threatening. And if the reader doesn’t care for one type of information, another type arrives quick enough. In Haunted, I wanted to mimic the appearance of “Best of” collections. For example, The Collected Works of Poe. Those books alternate stories with novellas and poems. Fic
tion with non-fiction. In Haunted, I use a ‘wrap’ or ‘envelope’ story to connect 23 short stories. Plus, each story is introduced by a poem. This creates a variety of ‘textures’ of information, making the pages more visually interesting. And combining one large story with many small ones lets me hit a long series of climaxes instead of the single major climax of a typical novel. And, – he jokes, -if the reader isn’t appalled by one gruesome climax, heck, there’s plenty more to come!”
Haunted , taken with Lullaby and Diary is part of a trilogy of what Palahniuk terms ‘horror stories’. For a generation that was reared to believe that horror had to include either a) a cape and fangs, or b) a twisted mask-wearing killer with an obsession with high-school students indulging in immoral acts, Palahniuk’s terming of his fiction as ‘horror’ is interesting. How are his stories horror stories? “Consider that we’re moderately afraid of some topics, – he responds, – and we can discuss those and give ourselves a little thrill and goosebumps. But also consider that we’re so afraid of other topics that we’ll never discuss them. Some fears are so threatening that we can’t allow them into our minds. My goal is to cross that line, and depict the fears we can’t face. You can argue that Stoker’s vampire represented venereal disease or the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe (two old theories), then King’s Carrie foretold school shootings. In my horror, I want to deal with personal humiliation and failure – a kind of internal monster, where the villain and victim are the same person”.
Following in a similar vein, there’s a strong tradition of horror writing in Anglo-Irish literature, whether it be Bram Stoker or people like Maturin or Sheridan le Fanu, and many academics have suggested that their fiction developed out of a subliminal need to address the change and violence inherent in their society at the time (relating it for instance to the question of Irish Nationalism). Where does the horror novel fit in, then, in post 9/11 America? “Again this is my take or ‘angle’ on horror, – he replies, – but by combining the villain and victim, I’d like to gently remind people that we create most of our own problems. The same people who wail about the need for imported oil, and global warming, and the war in Iraq – they still drive a six-banger SUV twenty miles to the store when they need a carton of milk. They still put three garbage cans on the curb each week. If we all recognize a personal responsibility in current politics, that might resolve them”.
While it may horrify the Christian right, Palahniuk takes much of his inspiration from Christian imagery. In an interview with readers of the Guardian, he commented: “In almost all my work, I try to re-invent Christian images and stories and themes”. What is it that draws him towards this type of imagery? “I’m always attracted to social models and metanarratives that allow people to co-exist in a community, – he explains, – I love being with people. But I need a script, a role, something that will help me overcome my fears of rejection and shame. Most religions and belief systems provide a blueprint for some sort of community. And the religion’s leaders model a way of being. For example, in my book Choke, a character enacts his own death and resurrection every night – as does the narrator in Fight Club. Here’s Jesus, allowing himself to look terrible in front of his peers. That’s the biggest purpose of religious gathering: permission to look terrible in public. We used to go to church to confess our worst behaviour, to be heard and forgiven, then to be redeemed and accepted back into our community. In most of my books, people achieve this same reunion with their peers, but through the new ‘religious’ forums of 12-step groups, support groups, and in Haunted, a writer’s colony.”