Me, Guts, and Breather Betty
I found Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted in a second hand book shop. Of course I’d heard of him long before THAT, ever since watching Edward Norton fight his id in David Fincher’s Fight Club. And I had been intending to pick one of his books up and read it ever since. But you know how it is, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all that.
I did come quite close many years later when I bought a copy of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, to which Palahniuk wrote the introduction.
But still, reading his introduction to another author’s work wasn’t exactly what I had intended.
And then I found Haunted.
And boy there are some days when I wish I never had.
I should have known, really.
The book actually comes with a warning sticker. PARENTAL ADVISORY it shouts, and then underneath says READ IT AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Oh, right, so the parental advisory sticker isn’t saying ‘Contains Explicit Material’, as in, ‘you might not want to let your kids read this because it’s probably not suitable for them.’ No, this one is saying, ‘Hey you, yes you reading this thing right now. I’m telling you DO NOT READ THIS BOOK! And if you do, don’t blame me if it fucks you up forever. Because I warned you. Okay? I warned you.’
Of course for many people that kind of warning is like a sizzling rasher of bacon to a recently lapsed vegetarian. How could I not resist?
Anyone remember the red triangle that Channel Four used to display in the corner of the TV screen late at night, back in the 1980s? It was there to inform casual channel hoppers that they had just come across a film that contained lots of strong language, sex and violence and so may offend. Obviously their late night ratings shot up as people stayed tuned eager to see what all the fuss was about. And then just as quickly dropped when audiences hungry for fat, tasty dollops of sex and violence realised they had been trapped into watching an art-house movie.
Anyway, where was I?
Chuck Palahniuk and Haunted.
Haunted is a novel of short stories and poems. The basic premise is this: A group of people who have answered an ad for an artists’ retreat find they are locked in an old theatre with food, heat and power growing increasingly scarce. Whilst degenerating into madness and despair they each tell their own horrific stories.
Right. Let me admit at this point that I never actually finished reading the book. I know, shocking isn’t it? Here I am reviewing a book for you, and I never actually read the damn thing all the way through!
In my defence can I just say, at least I didn’t faint.
Yes, you read that right: At least I didn’t faint.
But lots of people did when Chuck Palahniuk was doing the promotional tour thing, and reading out his short story ‘Guts’.
In all, seventy-three people have fainted while I’ve read ‘Guts’. For a nine page story sometimes it takes thirty minutes to read. In the first half, you’re pausing for so much laughter from your audience. In the second half you’re pausing as your audience is revived.
No, I didn’t faint but I did read it with a kind of shocked amusement at first, and then an appalled sense of disbelief at where the story had gone. ‘Guts’ is the first story in the book. It should have served as a warning that there was worse to come, but if it did I ignored it.
And for a while that was all right. The next few stories were strange but manageable.
But then I read ‘Exodus’.
No one fainted the first time I read my short story ‘Guts’. . . This was better than the Tuesday before, when my story called ‘Exodus’ sent a friend into my bathroom where she cried behind the locked door for the rest of the evening. Later, her therapist would ask for a copy of that story to help with her psychoanalysis.
‘Exodus’ is where I stopped reading. I can’t ever hear the words ‘Breather Betty’ again without thinking of that story, and the next time I have to do CPR training I am sure I will hesitate, just for a moment, before I connect my lips with the doll’s lips.
There are no monsters or trolls, vampires or werewolves or axe wielding madmen in these stories. Their horror comes from the banal impulses of life lived in the modern world. But, as the Observer noted in their review, it is ‘By turns nauseating, darkly funny and brutally graphic.’
And so yes, I never finished it.
I might pick up Haunted again one day, and tackle the stories I never read. Or maybe not.
I don’t really want to say anymore about this book.
Except for one thing.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: READ IT AT YOUR OWN RISK