Book Review: Burnt Tongues, Edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer

Burnt Tongues Cover

Her eyes were big as exit wounds and just as wet.

 

Medallion Press, 303 pages

Available now

 

Though earlier examples have existed, only to end up banned or destroyed, transgressive literature is often cited as germinating with the Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s, before spreading (some would say “metastasizing”) with the works of Emile Zola, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs, and more recently, trafficked throughout the novels of Irvine Welsh and this very anthology’s co-editor, Chuck Palahniuk.

More risqué in nature than the gothic and noir, yet skating the rim without slipping fully into the empty literary doldrums of all-out pornography, transgressive fiction deals in marginalized characters seeking redemption and identity within the bizarre and grotesque. Violence, incest, body horror, and drug abuse are just a few of the taboos the genre uses as vehicle by which to explore the human condition, in the process unveiling some nasty truths that many people would rather keep chained and out of view in the labyrinths of their hearts and minds.

In an effort to further legitimatize and codify the genre, Palahniuk, along with neo-noir writer Richard Thomas and filmmaker Dennis Widmyer, have amassed twenty festering, bruised tales dredged up by some of the hardest rising authors working in the field today. The result is Burnt Tongues: An Anthology of Transgressive Stories—“Burnt Tongues” being a phrase Palahniuk has used to describe the deliberate misuse of words in awkward, interesting ways to jumpstart the reader into seeing them anew.

Within the covers of this wonderfully disturbing, squirm-inducing collection, you’ll find all the mortifying, self-inflicted scars you go through great pains to hide from even our closest intimates; the highway blood-smears you can’t help rubberneck; the snarling undulations behind doors left ajar, just enough for your curious but tentative eye to squeeze through.

Burnt Tongues wastes no time kicking you into the deep end, opening with Neil Krolicki’s Live This Down. Three teenaged girls, having endured torment and embarrassment of the worst kind in school—including an especially pulpous miscarriage in a hot-tub full of students—form a suicide pact and find a drug cocktail recipe online to do the trick. Soon after taking the concoction, they learn that it can be harder to leave the world as it is to live in it, and suffer the final ironic consequence of failing even at death.

In Paper, by Gayle Towell, an actuarial research analyst employs toilet paper as a means to explore her own self-worth between comparing the sexual nuances of her new lover against her ex-husband.

Love advice is sought and given in Phil Jourdan’s Mind and Soldier. After a young man solicits his neighbor—a wheelchair-bound war veteran—for pointers on approaching a crush, he’s promptly given an honest crash-course in all manner of monstrous self-loathing and masculine inadequacy.

A mute building inspector in Detroit finds an overdosed, limbless junkie in a condemned building, and takes her on an unorthodox ride with him in Adam Skorupskas’s Invisible Graffiti, a modern fairytale about the brain’s ability to create normality out of the most unorthodox situations.

And in the anthology’s final story, positioned ideally to administer the coup de grace to whatever remains of your sensibilities, Daniel W. Broallt pulls all the stops with Zombie Whorehouse, a tale of an undercover journalist investigating a secret brothel where the objects of lust are the titular undead. It’s the ultimate exploration of sexual limits and the shapes they can take; the realization that you’re only made aware of your most warped proclivities only after they’ve been thrust upon you.

In the remainder of this compendium of deliciously vile behaviors and actions, you’ll find lonely criminals, violent youth, abused animals, bulimic prostitutes, the wretched and disfigured taking desperate—and in some case, final—aim at normalcy and acceptance. Sometimes you’ll want to avert your eyes or silently close the book, never to touch it again, but stay with it. There’s real soul and humanity lurking under all the fluids and scars, and you’ll emerge all the better for tackling it head on, albeit in want of a shower or two afterwards.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:

Dino ParentiWhen not scribbling twisted musings into spiral notebooks, photographing the odd puddle or junk pile, or building classy furniture, Dino Parenti earns a little scratch drawing buildings.

Read his fiction appearing in our Artemis and Dionysus issues: “Beyond The Eye” and “Meat Sweats

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