|If I get enough films into production, then everyone I love will die. Do not cross me. My pen can kill.|
“The greatest number fainted at the words ‘corn and peanuts’,” the author points out, referring to the point in which its hormonal protagonist spots a ‘half-digested meal’ in the ‘blue-white snake braided with veins’ wriggling out of his buttocks. “A publicist actually tracked the pattern – ‘corn and peanuts’. It’s an unlikely sleep incantation, but if it works… it works!”
The best-selling author of brilliant novels Fight Club (1996), Survivor (1999) and Diary (2003), Palahniuk has made a career out of crafting wry and twisted tales – and then infusing them with intense anatomical horror. For instance, in 2008’s Snuff, a troubled porn star attempts to gang-bang herself to death with 600 men. Palahniuk recounted in blunt medical detail how she might die horribly from a ‘vaginal embolism’ (air bubbles in the blood). It was the least erotic ‘porn’ novel ever written.
Yet despite Palahniuk’s authoritative writing, he hasn’t even seen a gang-bang porno. “My understanding is that record-setting gang-bang films are the top-selling genre of adult film,” he explains. “And no, I’ve never watched one. The only subject more boring might be golf. Endlessly putting things into holes. Yawn.”
HIGHWAY TO HELL
Palahniuk’s latest hellish read is set in Hell, and he was compelled to put pen to paper because of the tragic events happening in his own life at the time. Entitled DAMNED, it’s a pathos-tinged comedy, narrated by dead 13-year-old Madison Spencer, as she comes to terms with an eternity spent in Hell following a suspected marijuana overdose. It’s planned as the first in a trilogy of novels, based on Dante’s 14th century poem Divine Comedy, with its sequels airlifting Madison to the relative safety of purgatory before – hopefully – finding eternal peace in heaven.
Yet despite its laugh-out-loud scenes and optimistic themes, Palahniuk describes the year he wrote it – 2008 – as “the most terrible year of my life”. Not only was the man who fatally shot his father in 1999 taken from death row to have his sentence reviewed, thus rekindling awful memories, his mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given less than a year to live.
“It was torture, so writing Damned was my escape,” Palahniuk says grimly. “I’d already found myself in Hell, so why not write about it?”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film version of his 2001 novel Choke, starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston, was just hitting cinemas. It’s about a compulsive sex addict who cons restaurant-goers out of money to fund treatment for his dying mother. The irony was cruel.
“No matter how wild my imagination, it’s always outstripped by reality,” says Chuck. “In 1999, when Fight Club was launching as a film – which involves the protagonist being shot to death – my father was shot and killed. Then in 2008, I had to help promote a comedy about a son caring for his dying mother, and alternately be a real-world son caring for his own mother. If I get enough films into production, it follows that everyone I love will soon die. From now on I’ll only write about my enemies. Do not cross me. My pen can kill.”
Funny and sad, Damned still sneaks in the moments of graphic obnoxiousness that have made Palahniuk into a notorious cult figure. In one scene, Madison plunges a friend’s severed head into the giant vagina of a Serbian tornado demon, feverishly working the monster to climax (to the mutual pleasure of the head!). It’s inspired by children’s literary classic Gulliver’s Travels, where a miniature Gulliver pleasures noblewomen by traversing the contours of their ugly, sweaty bodies.
But Palahniuk doesn’t worry about whether people are outraged by his outlandish scenes. “As I age I tend to wish I’d done more as a young man… besides take drugs and drinking, I mean. Recognising that, now I don’t hesitate to use the most shocking and most upsetting ideas as they occur to me,” he says. It’s not that I’m getting braver. I’m simply caring less about how people might perceive my work or me. Years ago I fretted over Marla Singer in Fight Club wanting to have Tyler’s abortion – the most anti-romantic statement I could imagine – and now I wouldn’t give that line a second thought.”
Palahniuk says that he’s only had one story rejected by a publisher for being too extreme – a short tale inspired by an acquaintance who made a living out of selling cats to research centres for experimentation. The basic premise later appeared in his 2009 Pygmy novel, where a white rat is dropped into a waste disposal unit.
“That scene is only there to demonstrate the humanity of the title character,” says Palahniuk. “He’s the only person witnessing the act who protests. There’s nothing comic about it because his heart is broken.”
But while you can expect at least one horrific scene per Palahniuk novel, it’s the masturbation disasters in Haunted’s ‘Guts’ in for which he’s notorious, if only for making readers collapse during its stomach-churning descriptions.
Split into three parts, the story features three increasingly horrific chicken-choking calamities involving a carrot, a candle, and finally, a swimming pool circulation pump. Even more shockingly, they were inspired by real-life accounts, the first two from former university friends who “are no longer speaking to me”, and the latter from “a very thin man” who was attending a support group meeting for sexual compulsives. “I was attending that group, of course, as research for my book Choke,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many people have also said they were aroused by my adaptation…”
As for the research for Damned, there was no trawling of sex addict groups, or watching coma-inducing ‘golf’ films for that matter. Instead, Palahniuk lost himself to stacks of books on demonology and religion, discovering hordes of black-wing-spouting, rubbery, boar-faced demons in the process, most of whom had once reigned as gods in previous cultures. It made his final weeks with his mother all the more bizarre and profound.
“My mother and I made quite a domestic picture,” he recalls. “As she died she re-read all of her favourite novels, while I read books on mythology and demonology. It was only on the morning of her death, when the paramedics saw the dining room table piled with volumes and volumes about Satan and Hell, that I felt awkward…”
Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk, is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £12.99