Cult author Chuck Palahniuk is definitely the biggest name to be found in Burnt Tongues, the anthology of short stories recently published by Titan Books. This is true not only in a general sense, but in a literal one too, as the cover is dominated by his name, with the bylines of the other two editors (Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmyer) relegated to the line below, and no mention at all of any of the authors whose stories actually appear in the collection. An understandable move, perhaps. Palahniuk’s transgressive appeal is the stuff of legend; what better way to draw attention to new authors than to invoke his name?
If you were to buy a copy of Burnt Tongues because of his name on the cover, however, you might end up disappointed. Palahniuk’s writing makes up only a small portion of the volume as a whole. He provides an excellent, thought-provoking introduction, in which he writes about the literature which troubled him in his youth, and then sets out what he hopes Burnt Tongues will be:
“This book, the book you’re holding, I hope you gag on a few words – more than a few. May some of the stories scar and trouble you. Whether you like or dislike them doesn’t matter; you’ve already touched these words with your eyes, and they’re becoming part of you. Even if you hate these stories, you’ll come back to them because they’ll test you and prompt you to become someone larger, braver, bolder.”
This brief certainly seems to be one that the selected authors have taken to heart. Whether it’s a miscarriage in a hot tub or a perforated colon from a game taken too far, the characters in Burnt Tongues spill their raw secrets out onto the page. Many stories have about them an air of the confessional – in these tales the various narrators seem to scream at the reader, “Look at what I’ve done. Forgive me. Allow this telling to redeem me.”
Any maybe we will forgive them. Certainly some of the stories feature characters who are closer to redeeming themselves than others. Many, such as the somewhat simple narrator of Michael De Vito Jr’s story “Melody” (which, by the way, is wonderfully written and full of rich, overpowering, cartoonishly-bright descriptions), have simply made mistakes and misinterpreted situations. It’s not too hard to forgive them, to get on board with their point of view. Others, such as the rather shallow group of young people who attempt to end their lives in Neil Krolicki’s “Live This Down” are rather less easy to care about – which is fine; it makes it all the more satisfying when something awful inevitably happens to them.
At best you’ll cringe and read on, fascinated, unable to look away. At worst you won’t be able to escape the sensation that many of these stories are relying on nothing more than shock value for their impact. Either way, they’re certainly different, and all share a kind of blistering quality which made them, for me at least, unputdownable. Even long after closing the book I was unable to shake the memory of certain descriptions. As Palahniuk had promised in his introduction, the words had quickly become part of me.
I wrote before that Palahniuk has only a small part in this collection. In terms of actual writing contributed that’s true, but I think he also has a larger, more subtle influence. To one degree or another I felt that most of the stories in Burnt Tongues aped Palahniuk’s written style. Some were more obviously inspired by his unique voice than others. Were I to pick up Richard Lemmer’s story “Ingredients” for example, I would be confident in my assumption that it had been penned by Palahniuk, so close is the written style to his. Stories such as “Bike” by Bryan Howie (an excellent, shatteringly understated tale, the shortest in the book), dare to speak with their own voice, and in doing so stick out a mile from the rest of the collection.
I wonder if this lack of tonal variation might be down to the workshopping process. Editors Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmeyer explain in their own brief introduction how Burnt Tongues came to be assembled from a wealth of stories submitted to Palahniuk’s website. These stories were whittled down, reviewed, whittled down again and eventually sent to Palahniuk for editing. With such a process, lead by a writer with such a high profile, it is perhaps inevitable that the end result has emerged sounding somewhat like him.
With the similarity of these stories to Palahniuk’s own in mind, however, it might be an interesting exercise to compare the two. Take a look at Burnt Tongues alongside Palahniuk’s own short story collection Haunted and it’s a close-run thing as to which is better. In my view it’s actually Burnt Tongues. In a weird way the writers within have crafted better – fresher, more colourful, more outspoken – Palahniuk stories than Palahniuk himself.
So who might I recommend this book to? Palahniuk fans certainly. And horror fans. And perhaps any reader who is a fan of the macabre and appalling. I’d, of course, be sure to qualify my recommendation with a check that they have a strong stomach. Burnt Tongues is uncomfortable reading. You may not like it, but it certainly won’t be easily forgotten.
Christopher Frost now lives in Stoke-on-Trent, after studying at nearby Keele University. He is a freelance writer, and spends most of his time working for a local charity. In his spare moments he reads furiously, and writes book reviews.