Cold Reads: Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk
Lullaby is by no means a conventional horror novel. Then again, Chuck Palahniuk is by no means a conventional horror novelist. Hell, Palahniuk isn't even a conventional writer. While these factors may seem to be detriments to the success of the book, Palahniuk's novel accomplishes something that hardly seems possible in the world of horror today: he has developed a completely new, unique, and refreshing idea. Lullaby deserves to go down in the annals of the best psychological/satirical/horror novels, however small said annals may be.
Carl Streator is a journalist working for the Big City Paper when he is assigned to write a series of articles detailing the recent and bizarre cases of sudden infant death syndrome. Upon seeing a book entitled Poems and Rhymes Around the World at every death scene, Carl begins to realize the true terror of the situation. For within this volume of limericks is a culling song, an African chant that possesses the power to kill anyone it is spoken to. Now infected with the lullaby contagion, Carl finds himself a ticking bomb whose mere thought of the culling song can send anyone to the mortuary. With the help of a real estate agent who sells haunted houses, her Wiccan receptionist and her ecoterrorist boyfriend, Carl attempts to track down each volume of the book before its fear can destroy the entire world...
The book seems to have a mean streak running through it, no doubt due to the cynical narration of our protagonist Streator. He is the typical Palahniuk hero, complete with a dark, shady past and having an even bleaker view of the world around him. He lives in a scummy tenement building that seems to be populated by people who epitomize all the things he hates in life. Their loud music and blaring television sets invoke many a rant from Streator concerning society's self-destructive nature. The fact that he's a journalist in a metropolitan area contributes to his cynicism. He investigates everything around him in almost minute detail. But the things he sees have no true meaning; they're just facts and data. It's almost shocking to hear Streator talk about the death of the infants in such a detached way, figuring out what "angle" the story will have and how he will elicit the right emotions from his readers in order to continue their purchase of the newspaper.
There is some humanity still left in Streator's jaded heart though. I almost felt myself cry (at least on the inside) during the scene where Streator tells of his model building hobby. After constructing a miniscule and perfect rendition of a suburban home, Streator removes his shoes and begins to stomp on the model viciously. He smashes it into obliteration, completely ignoring the immense pain of the model parts impaling and entering his flesh. It is a heart rendering scene. Here is a man who has lost so many things (his family, his dignity, his very sense of who he is) and who now is compelled to make these picture-perfect buildings only to destroy them. They represent all the hope he had for his future, now crushed under a cruel, divine hand. Streator is the tragic hero, as nothing but misery seems to follow him everywhere he goes.
The prose may stun some readers early on in the book. It kind of haves the consistency of a film, with sudden jump cuts of scenes spliced within scenes and Streator's thoughts interjecting at seemingly random points. I would safely say that Palahniuk's work is not for the public at large, for this reason and others. But if you remain persistent, you will find yourself slipping into the narrative as smoothly as a well-lubricated latex glove. Taking the content of Palahniuk's work into account, I feel that is an appropriate simile.
Streator is our main man for the length of the book, accompanied by a cast of supporting characters who can't help but get under our skin in all-too-human ways. Helen Hoover Boyle is the real estate agent who makes a living leasing out beautiful, expensive homes that just so happen to be occupied by restless spirits. By this description alone you can already perceive that Helen is a vampire, a woman who has no qualms about sucking people of their resources until she no longer needs them. Her past is almost exactly identical to Streator's. But whereas Streator sets to right the wrongs in his life and seek salvation, Helen's focus is on obtaining power, whether it be through the priceless gems and furniture she compulsively buys and destroys or the gaining of an ancient grimoire that contains a multitude of magical spells. Helen is not necessarily a villain though. She joins Streator on his journey and aids him in many escapades. One revelation of Helen's character has us rooting for her and cheering her on while the next makes us loathe the very mention of her. There are some characters we love-to-hate and others who we hate-to-love-and-then-hate-again. Helen Hoover Boyle is a proud member of the former camp.
The two other members of this nuclear family for the millennium are Mona and Oyster, a hippie couple whose interests include magic, nude vegan parties, and liability frauds. They're arrogant and disrespectful of adults, constantly complaining of the world they live in, and spouting their theologies of how to better the earth. Basically they're the teenagers you try to avoid when you go to the mall. If you can. The novel loses some of its locomotion and punch during the scenes of the long car drives with nothing but Oyster and Mona's annoying (if slyly humorous) rants to fill up the space. Lucky for us that we have Palahniuk's talent to guide us through these dismal scenes. If it were anyone else, these scenes would most likely be purely abhorrent.
Palahniuk also demonstrates what a skillful hand he has at writing absurd scenes full of shocking humor. In particular, the moment when Streator is angrily trudging through the streets of the city are pretty frickin' hilarious. I was glad that I was alone in the room at the time, as my uproarious laughter might have frightened anybody unlucky enough to hear my devilish glee. After Streator develops the ability to kill people with simply thinking of the culling song, anyone who just happens to piss him off gets an early burial. A pushy city slicker kicks the bucket after shoving Streator in the streets. Boom! He falls onto the pavement and cracks his skull open. A police officer falls off his high horse (literally) when he restricts Streator from a blocked off area. Pow! His jaw hits a wooden post and sends a severed part of his tongue flying through the air. One of the reasons this scene is so hysterical is that anyone can instantly identify with Streator's emotions. How many times have you been in a stuffed elevator or in a long line to the rollercoaster and secretly wished you go into Death Star mode in order to get everyone out of the way? We may be laughing at Palahniuk's madcap humor, but a small part of ourselves is snickering at our own human condition.
If you thought that humor, philosophy, and horror could not mesh well in the same book, then you obviously have yet to read Lullaby. Chuck Palahniuk is a writing force like no other. He seems to deserve a genre all to his own. He will make you laugh, he will make you think, he will make you shudder in grotesque joy. Whatever apprehensions you have of Palahniuk or his work, abandon them. This stranger with candy has something special for you. The treats are really sweet and his bite isn't all that bad.