Tag Archives: Chuck Palahniuk

Burnt Tongues

Transgressive fiction is just a spiffy gold badge for seriously fucked up and off-kilter stories to wear so they seem a bit more high class than they are. I love weird fiction. I like stuff that is dark and bleak and just plain strange. A taste that began when I first read the works of Robert Aickman and continued through to the heady waters of bizarro that we have around us today.

I must admit that I am not much of a fan of the work of Chuck Palahniuk. I find a great deal of his work a bit pretentious and overly obnoxious for no other reason than to be just that, but I hung in and accepted the challenge to review Burnt Tongues. All stories were hand picked by Palahniuk and all of them rabidly wild and unsettling—and like any good scar, they’ll itch and remind you of their existence long after you’ve tried to forget them.

“Charlie,” by Chris Lewis Carter, in which a lonely man brings an abused cat to a veterinarian who proceeds to tell a tragic story from his childhood, one that seems to have an all too tight noose around the present.

“Melody,” by Michael De Vito Jr., shows us a sweet love affair missing a side and a few other things. “F is for Fake,” by Tyler Jones, is the story of an imposter and the lengths he will go to prove a point. Phil Jourdan’s “Mind and Solider” is a deeply troubling tale of a crippled veteran and his encounter with a neighbor boy.

“Ingredients,” by Richard Lemmer, reads like an urban legend, woven around a twisted retail game and the grisly outcome. Matt Egan paints a tear-stained picture of a girl justifying her own tragedy with that of another in “A Vodka Kind of Girl.” One of my favorites from the collection is Brandon Tietz’s “Dietary,” is a gut-punching window into cubicle politics and reindeer games with sharper teeth and parasites.

My favorite of the bunch is “Bike,” by Bryan Howie. This one has stayed with me, so simple and brilliant, I can’t even give a synopsis for fear of draining any of its power. “Heavier Petting,” by Brien Piechos, is a gruesome tableau of relationship woes and secrets, with a little bit of dog-fucking thrown in.

The closer, “Zombie Whorehouse,” by Daniel W. Broallt, saunters up to you while you’re already weary from the others and smacks you upside the head and grabs your face to make you read it. A sick and brutal tale of a man undercover sent to expose a zombie whorehouse from within, and much more.

The collection is solid and while not all of the stories left me gobsmacked, quite a number of them did. But it left me feeling dirty and ashamed, like I’d just watched Gummo again. If you like your fiction left of center and brutal, unafraid to hurt you and unwilling to hide behind the flowery garments of literary trends, this is your shit. Embrace it.

Available through Medallion Press.

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Primordial: An Abstraction

There really isn’t a lot you can say about the work of D. Harlan Wilson. I know that I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel stupid every time I read something he writes. The man wields words like tools and weapons, goes at you with surgical precision and gets at those wounds with the heavy tools. So heady and wild are his plots (if you can all them such) that by the time I’ve finished, I usually think I may need to start again to figure out what I’ve missed.

He was one of the first of a class and style called Bizarro that I long ago encountered. I have read a lot of the stuff since and I still insist, Wilson is one of the best. While his work does contain some of the oddly goofy, almost cartoonish escapades that his contemporaries often purvey, his is tightly leashed with psycho-intellectual philosophies and down right unwieldy lectures that somehow work and fight like puzzle pieces.

His newest novella is called Primordial: An Abstraction. I shall do my best to interpret for you: A professor is busted for toxic teaching and sent back to redo his Ph.D. Sent to a dorm room that he shares with countless others, he begins a wildly paranoid and claustrophobic nightmare of educational bureaucratic bullshit as well as an epidemic of pornography. He immerses himself in anger, violence, and obsessive weight-training. For every step he seemingly makes towards his beloved degree, he slides back on the blood of those he’s terrorized.

I dug this book. Did I get it? I’d say, maybe a little. But I am a lover of words. Any words. All words. I just like looking at them and saying them and seeing them in strings. Wilson weaves wonderful strings. If you have the resolve to dabble in the real deal of Bizarro, if you’re growing bored of Palahniuk and his edgy-for-edginess’-sake offerings, then maybe it’s time to unhook the training wheels and give Wilson a go.

Available through Anti-Oedipus press.

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A Conversation with Author Todd Keisling

In his Goodreads profile, author Todd Keisling admits that he is “awkward and weird” and that if you were his neighbor, you’d probably die. Mercedes M. Yardley recently sat down with Todd to get the details on his latest projects and jot down pointers on how to dispose of cranky men who steal things off your lawn.

Mercedes M. Yardley: Todd, you started out with A Life Transparent. Its sequel, The Liminal Man, was a 2013 Indie Book Award finalist in the Horror/Suspense category. Congratulations. Are you currently working on the third book of the trilogy? Did you plot the trilogy out start to finish before you began?

Todd Keisling: Thank you! Being a finalist for the award was a big surprise and an even bigger honor. Initially, I didn’t plot the trilogy from start to finish. A Life Transparent (or ALT) was originally intended as a standalone story, but about a year after its initial publication I had an idea for what became its sequel, The Liminal Man.

That second book was a monster and went through many iterations (I think the final version was draft #5). When my editor finally got her hands on it, she gave me a choice: either add another 150 pages to make the existing ending work, or change the ending and complete the story with a third novel. I took some time to think it over, wrote a broad outline for what a third book would look like, and decided to move ahead in that direction. So to answer your question, no, it wasn’t a planned trilogy.

I spent most of this year working on some shorter fiction since TLM took so long (almost four years) to complete. I really just needed a break from that storyline. That being said, I’m in the early stages of the final Monochrome novel, and while I have the high points of the novel already plotted, I’m still trying to keep the process as organic as possible.

MMY: What’s the draw to writing a series vs. a standalone work? Do you do standalone as well? How do you keep the series fresh?

TK: That’s a good question and I don’t have a straight answer for you. I’ve written standalone novels before, but the Monochrome books are my first real series. I find it’s interesting to watch a character develop over the course of multiple titles rather than a single work. It’s liberating in some ways, and constraining in others: liberating in that I don’t have to tie up loose ends right away (which leaves a sense of mystery, keeping things fresh for the reader), but constraining in that some minor plot detail written in the first book can come back to bite me on the ass in the final book (which makes me cry). Those loose ends that were left untied in the first book always have a way of becoming tangled up in your plot later on, and fixing them always makes for a fun exercise in problem-solving.

It’s just a lot to juggle at one time, and for the third book I’ve started keeping track of extensive notes and details in Scrivener. You know, so minor character names don’t change halfway through, or so one person’s eyes don’t suddenly change from blue to brown.

Overall, I’m enjoying the experience, but I’m also looking forward to being done with the series so I can work on other ideas. Honestly, I think I prefer writing standalone fiction, and I don’t see myself doing another series any time soon—not without planning it, first.

MMY: I know you’re working on a collection of short stories. There seems to be a resurgence of the short story, lately. Would you consider yourself more of a novelist, a short story guy, or both? What are the pros and cons of each form?

TK: I’d like to believe I’m both. I used to write a lot of short fiction, but I turned away from it for a while after writing ALT. After TLM’s publication, I realized I had a number of ideas for stories that had accumulated over the last few years. I wanted to try my hand at shorter fiction again, and I quickly discovered that particular art form is even more difficult than I remembered. Two of the stories in the collection (titled Ugly Little Things) aren’t even “short” by today’s standards; at 14k and 17k words, they’re more novella than short story.

I think novels are fun because they allow for so much development and exploration. The canvas of a novel can stretch as far and wide as you want it to. The danger, of course, is that it can become overwhelming at times, and something complex can require years of commitment. Short stories are harder to execute, but more rewarding if you manage to pull it off. The usual word count restrictions that come with the typical short story markets are also fun to work with, but can be a thorn in your side if you have an idea that begins to take off and grow beyond your original scope.

Ultimately, I believe in letting the story be what it wants to be, which works well in the realm of novels; with short stories, you have to be a lot more hands on, directing the story where it needs to go.

MMY: Musical inspiration. You have it. Tell me how the process works when you’re writing. Do you have something playing at the time? Do you purposely seek out soundtracks for each piece you’re working on, or does it happen to be whatever you’re listening to at the time?

TK: I always write to music. Whenever I sit down to work, I’ll try to find a piece of music that fits the mood or theme of what I’m writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s lyrical or if it’s an instrumental piece—if it fits, I’ll listen to it on repeat until I’m finished working.

I got the idea from Chuck Palahniuk. Several years ago I read an interview in which he talked about listening to the same song over and over while writing. The idea is to listen to something so much that it puts you in a kind of meditative state. Doesn’t matter what kind of music—if you listen to it enough times, you’ll eventually tune it out. I have no idea what the science is behind it; I just know it works for me.

MMY: I met you a bit earlier, but we really started to talk after being in the Exquisite Death audiobook together. Was that your first audiobook? What was the experience like for you? Would you turn your other pieces into audiobooks as well?

TK: As a matter of fact, Exquisite Death was my first audiobook and my first anthology. I had a great time working with In Ear’s Mark Chatterley, and I hope to submit one of my longer stories to him in the near future. I love audiobooks (otherwise I never would’ve made it through Atlas Shrugged) and podcasts (Pseudopod, NoSleep, Welcome to Night Vale, et al), and I intend to pursue having my other work adapted for audio.

MMY: You’re an analytical guy as well as a creative. Does this grounded side help you as a writer?

TK: I think it’s a blessing and a curse. The creative side always wants to rush ahead; the analytical side throws up its hand and says, “Wait a minute. Let’s think about this.” It’s sort of like the classic angel/devil dynamic, with one on each shoulder, keeping one another in check. I’ll have an idea that seems really cool and great, but I always have to think through the logistics—even if I’m completely making it up, I still have to make sure that what I’m writing works within the universe I’ve created.

Something my editor, Amelia, has always done is ask my why or how things work. Even if it doesn’t end up in the story, she asks me those questions as a way of reinforcing my understanding of the plot, scene, whatever is under scrutiny. If I can’t give her a straight answer, that’s usually a sign that I need to a better grasp of what I’m writing about. Sometimes I do have a clear answer; other times I don’t, which has led to several scene rewrites.

I’m trying to approach the final Monochrome book in a more analytical manner, creating a working document filled with questions that a reader (or Amelia) might have. The questions can be about anything, from character motivation to the repercussions of certain actions if they come to pass within that narrative’s universe. Once I answer them, I try to poke as many holes into them as I can, and if they don’t hold up, I try to think of a different solution.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this, but as I head into the final book of an unplanned trilogy, I feel it’s a necessity. Yeah, it’s a little grueling and painful, but I think it will make for a much tighter narrative a year down the line.

MMY: You write horror that easily crosses over into thriller territory. Does the ability to straddle both genres help or hinder your marketing?

TK: In some ways it helps; in others, it hinders. Writing a book that can be classified as a number of genres works well from the angle of appealing to as many people as possible. People who normally don’t read horror or suspense have emailed to say they loved my books, and I think that’s because the stories defy genre.

Unfortunately, the flip-side of that coin means that it may also put off people who stick to a particular genre. My books are speculative fiction, but you’ll find them in the Horror category even though they aren’t 100% straight horror. Some diehard horror fans probably don’t like that; the same goes for the folks who like thrillers or suspense stories—they want serial killers, not weird supernatural creatures. I have both, and they go out for drinks at the end of the day when the work is done.

This defiance of genre is my “brand,” I guess, and it makes the marketing aspect much more difficult. I’ve thought about compromising, sticking to one particular genre to make things easier for myself, but I don’t think I’d be happy doing that. The stories are what they want to be; it’s my job to record them as accurately as possible, and if they happen to deal with parallel realities, monsters, murderers, and noir-like atmosphere, then so be it. I’ll write them down. Maybe people will want to read them.

***

If you’d like to get in contact with Todd or check out any of his work, you can contact him through his website, Facebook, Twitter or his author profile on Goodreads.

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Dead Things and Satanskin

I have probably stated before, quite a few times, actually, the fact that I am just about zombied out. So when I received a package containing Dead Things, by Matthew Darst, I read the blurbage and sighed. Zombies. But I won the book through a Goodreads giveaway—and hey, Free book! Better yet, a signed free book.

I started it that night, and within two or three nights had finished it. It was that good.

The debut novel is set nearly twenty years after the “zombie event.” The dead have risen and eaten folks. Society has collapsed and rebuilt itself. Religious fanatics have lots of control. Our main characters are literally thrown together in a plane crash and forced to stick together to survive. Adding to the tension of outrunning the hungry dead, there is the fact that no one trusts anyone else, as anyone could be a mole for the church. I’m talking Witch Hunt kinda-church.

Darst uses a number of nifty maneuvers to keep this a fresh offering. The dialogue is smart and witty. The science behind the story is very well thought out and smart. In fact, I’d say the weakest point would have to be the ending, which seemed a bit rushed—literally rushing headlong into and messily hitting closure in a chapter.

As I stated, this is a debut novel. A well-written, smartly entertaining debut. Integral to the plot are the zombies; however, it is more than a zombie novel. It’s a novel about humans being, a novel where the monsters we become are far more frightening than the things shambling from the graves to gnaw on our flesh.

Dead Things is available from Grand Mal Press.

In 1992, James Havoc released this wonderful book of bizarre and repulsive word swill. I loved it. Still do. Then he went missing. Dropped right off the face of the earth.

Gone. Never to be heard from again.

Like a meth-fueled mixture of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Michael Gira and Chuck Palahniuk being poured down the eager throat of Edward Lee, Satanskin is that hardcore. Graphic as anything you can imagine. Surrealism carved in the faces of the damned with a rusty razor equals Satanskin.

Havoc didn’t paint with words…he fed you the words then reached down your throat—or up your ass—and then finger-painted your brain with them. These stories are prose-beasts. Skulking ugly creations that stumble in and out of cohesive narrative. There are vampires and nameless things, aliens and undead creatures. Depraved children and Demonic butt-sex. It’s an explosion of supreme insanity and chaotic cringe-worthy debauchery. This is Bizarro, from a time when the tag didn’t really exist.

This title was released in 1992 via The Tears Corporation/Creation Press. In 2011, the 20th anniversary e-book edition, which includes the bonus story “Third Eye Butterfly,” was released by Elektron Ebooks.

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