Burnt tongues, p.1
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       Burnt Tongues, p.1
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           Chuck Palahniuk
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Burnt Tongues

  Dedicated to the members of The Cult

  Published 2014 by Medallion Press, Inc.


  is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.

  If you purchase this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the authors nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

  Copyright © 2014 by Medallion Press

  Cover design by Jay Shaw

  Editors: Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer

  Associate editor: Mirka Hodurova

  Contributing readers: Kasey Carpenter, Mark Grover, and Johnathan Kabol

  Medallion Press editor: Lorie Popp Jones

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.


  Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  The Power of Persisting:

  An Introduction by Chuck Palahniuk

  From the Editors:

  The Genesis of Burnt Tongues by

  Dennis Widmyer and Richard Thomas

  The Power of Persisting: An Introduction

  Chuck Palahniuk

  My favorite books are the ones I’ve never finished reading. Many of them I hated the first time through: The Day of the Locust, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five. Even Jesus’ Son occurred as something so odd that I balked and set it aside. High school spurred me to hate The Great Gatsby and the stories of John Cheever. I was a fifteen-year-old pimple factory. How was I supposed to swallow the embittered disillusionment of a thirty-year-old Nick Carraway? Growing up as I did, in a trailer house sandwiched between a state prison and a nuclear reactor, Cheever’s genteel world of country clubs and commuter trains seemed more make-believe than the Land of Oz.

  After a few years of such false starts, I picked up an almost-forgotten copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers and read it cover to cover in one sitting. Since then I’ve bought copies to give to friends, copies and copies, with the caveat: “You’re going to hate this at first . . .”

  Not to be a name-dropper, but I had dinner with Ellis, and referring to Fight Club, he asked me, “How does it feel to have a good movie made from one of your books?” He was also referring to the film adaptation of his book Less Than Zero, which everyone disliked at the time. Oddly enough, I recently watched it—The Bangles singing “Hazy Shade of Winter,” oh, the skinny neckties and huge shoulder pads, oh, the pleated pants—and I wept, it was so moving. Part of that effect was the nostalgia. But part was my becoming smart or old or open enough to appreciate stories that aren’t exclusively about me.

  Young people want mirrors. Older people want art. If I couldn’t see myself, my world, in Cheever or Gatsby, I

  rejected them.

  To illustrate my point in another way, I didn’t always wear eyeglasses. Through my first three years of school, I cursed the idiot who’d hung the clocks so far up on the walls. Really, what was the point of putting a clock so high that no one could read the time? The same went for basketball hoops. The game involved heaving a basketball at something almost invisible, it was so far off. This was a pointless game invented by lunatics.

  But at the age of eight I got my first pair of glasses, and suddenly the world made sense; clocks were no longer a blurred smudge of white near the ceiling. The inexplicable swooshing sound that came when someone scored a foul shot—I realized it was a net I’d never been able to see hanging below the hoop. There were some headaches at first, but I adjusted.

  The good news is that we all grow up. Even I grew up. Every year, I open Slaves of New York or The Day of the Locust or even Jesus’ Son and enjoy it as if it’s a wholly different book. Of course it’s not the book that’s changing. It’s me.

  I’m the one who still needs rewriting.

  Don’t we all?

  For the sake of argument, I hereby reject first impressions of “good” or “bad.” Over time, readers will remember strong writing; time passes, and the reader changes. What’s considered tasteful and readily acceptable to one era is easily dismissed by the next, and while the audience for bold storytelling might start small, as time passes it will continue to grow.

  A hallmark of a classic long-lived story is how much it upsets the existing culture at its introduction. Take for example Harold and Maude and Night of the Living Dead—both got lambasted by reviewers and dismissed as distasteful, but they’ve survived to become as comforting as musty back issues of Reader’s Digest.

  We return to troubling films and books because they don’t pander to us—their style and subject matter challenge, but to embrace them is to win something worth having for the rest of our lives. The difficult, the new and novel establish their own authority. The impulse of young people is to complete ourselves as quickly as possible—with the objects we can easily acquire, with fast food, and to fill our heads with printed/downloaded/secondhand information as if we’ll never need to buy, eat, or learn another thing until we die. Reaching that goal is, in itself, a kind of death. By middle age our lives are burdened with cheap, easy everything. Like Nick, the narrator in Gatsby, most of us are trapped within our hastily built selves by the age of thirty.

  By middle age we’re striving to declutter and to diet. Oh, if only I could get cranial liposuction to extract all the trivial facts still crowding my brain.

  Think of every movie you treasure. On closer inspection there are still parts of each story that you fast-forward through and parts you rewind to watch over. These parts change as your moods shift, but the extreme is what endures. What we resist persists.

  To give credit where credit is due, that last line is something they used to teach in the old est Training. At least that’s where I first heard it. Nonetheless, it bears repeating.

  What you resist persists.

  The worst thing you could do is read this book and instantly enjoy every word. 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.

  Among the writers I’ve known at the beginning of their careers—in workshops or classes—their most-common weakness was an inability to tolerate any lasting, unresolved tension. Beginning writers will shy away from escalating and maintaining discomfort in a story. They’ll set the stage for glorious potential disasters—but quickly sidestep them. Most of these writers come from shitty backgrounds. Nothing drives a person to the secret, internal world of writing fiction as effectively as a miserable childhood, and after those early years of coping with erratic parents or violence or poverty, the smart kid has no tolerance whatsoever for further conflict. Such a kid develops a skill for smoothing out upsets and avoiding confrontations. Imagine an airplane bouncing down a runway, never going faster than thirty miles per hour, never staying airborne for more than fifty feet. Now ask yourself: Would you take such a flight from Los Angeles to New York? Unless writers can come to embrace and live with suspense, their work will always stay flat.

  Among the rewards of writing fiction is the opportunity to reacclimatize yourself to discomf
ort but in the best possible way. You’re no longer that child victim. You get to create and control the conflict. Over weeks or months, you heighten the tension, and ultimately you get to resolve it. On the other hand, your reader is expected to experience the finished product in a fraction of the time you took to create it. It’s no wonder some books take as long to consume as they did to produce. It might’ve taken Fitzgerald a couple years to write The Great Gatsby, but it took me over a decade of rereading it before I could empathize with the narrator’s heartbroken tone.

  Whether you take days or years to read them, these stories wouldn’t be in this book without the community of writers created by Dennis Widmyer, Mirka Hodurova, Mark Vanderpool, and Richard Thomas. For over a decade they’ve led an online support system that has given writers from around the world a place to workshop their fiction, to meet fellow writers, and to improve their storytelling. Subjected to the feedback of hundreds of peers, these stories have survived and improved. Even my own suggestions didn’t ruin them. One of my favorite writers Joy Williams once said, “You don’t write to make friends.” I fully agree, but somehow you do. You do make friends along the way.

  I hope you love their stories. Some I already love; some I’ll love in the future. Tastes change. If you want instant gratification, look in a mirror. For the rest of my life a different me will pick up this book again and again, read every page, and never feel as if I’ve finished it—because I, myself, am never finished. Eventually, you and I, we’ll both love it—all of it. These stories can show us new worlds like a dozen pairs of eyeglasses. The future is always a headache at first.

  From the Editors: The Genesis of Burnt Tongues

  Dennis Widmyer and Richard Thomas

  What exactly does burnt tongue mean? It originated with Tom Spanbauer and one of his prize pupils—you guessed it, Chuck Palahniuk. A lot of terms have been assigned to Palahniuk and his students—transgressive, minimalist, and grotesque, for example—and they certainly apply. From an article in LA Weekly, Palahniuk defines burnt tongue as “a way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés.” And that’s always been the goal of our workshop—to write stories that make you stop and take notice, think about what you just read, and go back and read it again, feeling the emotions that have been created by the writing, the words.

  Back in 2004, there was an idea that was bandied about involving the workshop of talented authors at The Cult and the lessons and essays of Chuck Palahniuk. Years later, when Chuck mentioned that he wanted to read the authors’ work and give them feedback, we knew we were onto something. This was a rare opportunity for our emerging authors, and it immediately created a sense of urgency and excitement in the workshop. Reading the stories each month, we realized there was great potential with this idea—so many talented authors, so many unique stories and perspectives.

  Over the course of twelve months, from 2010 to 2011, a team of dedicated readers screened all the stories that flooded into the workshop (over one hundred a month) and nominated six stories each, for a total of fifteen to twenty each month. (Sometimes a story was nominated by more than one reader.) Those stories (the “Big List”) were then narrowed down to the best six (the “Finalists”) and sent to Chuck. He then read and reviewed those stories, and his notes were posted on the website for others to study and absorb, making their work stronger, more focused, and ready for publication.

  In 2011, we presented the seventy-two best stories to Chuck, and from that master list of finalists, he selected what he thought were the twenty strongest entries to create this anthology—and that is what you see before you now, the final manuscript, Burnt Tongues.

  Along the way there were many false starts and long periods of silence, but we knew this project needed to stay alive, so we kept pushing, rewriting proposals, and finding new ways to keep the anthology going. We owed the authors in this book our best efforts—the stories needed to see the light of day, and when they were published, it would help thrust these emerging authors into the spotlight. Between the original kernel of an idea and now, several of these authors have gotten agents, book deals, and published other stories, so maybe our instincts were correct.

  We hope you enjoy the stories in this collection—they are not for the faint of heart. But in their unique perspectives we saw depth, character, and truth—powerful stories that should stay with you for a long time.

  Live This Down

  Neil Krolicki

  You pour the one part bath salts into the two parts pesticide, and how long you’ve got depends on which website you trust. Corine hits play on her iPod, and we’re not supposed to make it past song six. Her Cruel World playlist. From her phone, Dana sets her Facebook status to: “Dana is sooooo out of here.” She taps out her final Tweet: “XOXO, All is forgiven . . . Just kidding.” Line one of Corine’s final blog entry says: “Feel terrible, everybody. Blame yourselves.” This is the opener we voted in; of the two runners-up this one was the most, like, melancholy.

  You didn’t know what any of these sites said until you chose Japanese to English and clicked translate. Even then it was mostly a mess to read, but we got the gist. This recipe, the Internet said it’s proven and reliable. It made this way of killing yourself sound like a compact sedan, which makes sense because Japanese people invented this whole deal. Japan is way chill about suicide. You lose your job, all your money, can’t feed your kids, and everybody’s cool if you want to sit in your car while it’s running in a closed garage. If you want to shoot yourself in the mouth or jump off, like, a really tall building. Or if you want to mix up a couple chemicals that shouldn’t be mixed and lock yourself in a room with it. They’re way fine with that. It’s honorable and stuff.

  We were never down with the whole bullet or building thing because then everyone at your funeral can only cry around some fancy vase with the neatly packaged, burned-up you inside. Your mom and stepdad only have to look at a photo of you from a sixth grade dance recital in a pretty frame. No one was going to get off that easy.

  The anchor chick reporting on Japan’s Detergent Suicides a few weeks ago, she didn’t give you a step-by-step, but she gave you enough to Google. “Hundreds of Japanese citizens taking their lives by mixing this brand of bath salts (shown top right) with this brand of lime sulfur–based pesticide (shown bottom right).”

  Cops in Japan would pull down one how-to site, and five more would pop up. From the country that builds all the little gadgets that make your life easier comes this way to make your death easier, too.

  Easy. Peasy. Japanesey.

  So, way, way before you get to mixing, you’re snagging your mom’s Visa number and booking a killer suite on the highest floor of the Ritz-whatever downtown. You’re telling the dude at the front that your parents are checking in later tonight and it’s totally fine if he gives you the room card. You and the two friends with you are just going to hang out. Watch Pay-Per-View.

  In the room, you jump on the four-poster bed. You open the curtains and take a sec to look down on everybody before you start pulling the yards of clear plastic out of Dana’s suitcase.

  P.S. This next part takes longer than you think.

  One of us stands on the back of the luxury porcelain toilet, holding the edge of this shower curtain stuff up to the ceiling in the bathroom. The other tears off an arm’s length of this silver tape with her teeth and smacks the edge down. Overlapping and taping long sheets so it covers everything: the inset quartz sink, the diffused glass light fixtures, the marble flooring.

  Everything but the eighteen jet tub.

  Doing all this prep work to make a condom of the bathroom with three girls sealed up inside, this is a total bitch. But if you aren’t planning on killing a hotel full of dogs and cats, if you’re not shooting for a mass evacuation with every guest yakking violently all the way to the hospital, then the airtig
ht bubble thing is pretty crucial.

  Taped to the outside of the bathroom door is Corine’s sign with the clip art skull that says: “Poison Gas—Do Not Enter!!!” So any housekeepers letting themselves in tomorrow morning don’t go opening this bathroom without those rubber jumpsuits with built-in gas masks. Dana says we should have typed it in Spanish, too.

  The handles are too small for Corine to get her fingers through, so it’s Dana and me lifting the heavy jugs out of the roller suitcase and tipping them into the tub. The label has pictures of ants and beetles, all with bright red circles around them and slashes through the middle. Corine starts turning the boxes of bath salts over the tub, shaking the pellets until the first box is gone. Then the second and third. We suck in our last clean breath before Corine pokes the jets-on button. Then she hits play on the iPod, speakers on either side, with the same thick finger.

  You’ve seen Corine on the Internet, and if you haven’t you don’t go to Watson Middle School. Only there everyone calls her Pussy Lover, not Corine. The video you saw online, the one that got posted and re-posted and e-mailed and forwarded times a million, Corine’s always said it’s fake. To the lunchroom table of jackasses laughing and licking their lips she screamed, “It wasn’t what you think! I would never do that!”

  But they’d chant: “Pussy Lover! Pussy Lover!” A whole lunch period doing slurp sounds and meowing.

  This is why Corine eats lunch off campus on the stack of newspapers waiting to be recycled at the Safeway three blocks from anyone who’d call her anything. Away from anyone who’d see her three roast beef sandwiches, her sack of Doritos, four chocolate snack cakes, and diet soda.

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