The Guts Effect
by Chuck Palahniuk
Included with Advanced Readers Copies
Sent out with the UK edition of 'Haunted'
No one fainted the first time I read the short story, 'Guts'. This was on a Tuesday night, in the writers workshop where my friends and I have shared our work since 1991. Each week, I would read another of the short stories I planned to include in a novel to be called Haunted. My goal was to create horror around very ordinary things: carrots, candles, swimming pools. Microwave popcorn. Bowling balls.
No one fainted, in fact my friends laughed. At moments, the room had the silence of total shocked attention. No one scribbled helpful notes in the margin of their copy. No one reached for their glass of wine.
This was better than the Tuesday before, when my story called 'Exodus' sent a friend into my bathroom where she cried behind the locked door for the rest of the evening. Later, her therapist would ask for a copy of the story to help with her psychoanalysis.
No, this week, my writer friends just laughed, and I told them how the three-act story of 'Guts' was based on three true anecdotes. Two had happened to friends, and the last had happened to a man I'd met while attending sex addict support groups to research my fourth novel. They were three funny, gradually more upsetting true stories about experiments with masturbation gone wrong. Horribly wrong. Nightmarishly wrong.
But there were stories so funny and sad that for years, every time I boarded an airplane, I said the silent prayer: 'Please God, do not crash this plane because I'm the only of Your children who knows all three of these great stories…" In silence, I'd bargain, 'Just let me do something, make something to preserve all three…"
And then I wrote 'Guts'. One of the twenty-plus stories that would alternate with poems and the chapters of a book, binding together dozens of mostly true stories. All of them, more of less… upsetting.
On the promotion tour for my novel Diary, I read 'Guts' for the first time in public. This was in a crowded bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Powell's City of Books. A film crew was there from the Netherlands to shoot a documentary. About eight hundred people filled the store to fire code capacity. Reading 'Guts' takes a full head of steam. You don't get many moments to look up from the page. But when I did, the faces in the front row looked a little gray. Beyond that were questions and answers. The book signing. The end.
It wasn't until I'd signed the last book that a clerk said two people had fainted. Two young men. They'd both dropped to the concrete floor during 'Guts', but they were fine now. With no memory of anything between standing, listening, and waking up surrounded by people's feet.
This was September. The bookstore, hot and stuffy. It was a fluke not to worry about.
The next night, at a Borders bookstore chilled with air conditioning, in another big crowd listening to 'Guts', another two people fainted. A man and a woman.
The next day in Seattle, at a lunchtime reading for the employees of a high-tech corporation, two more men fainted. Two big men. At the same moment in the story, both of them fell so hard that their chrome chairs flipped and clattered loud on the polished hardwood floor of the auditorium. At this, the whole corporation was standing, everyone on tip-toe, trying to see who'd fallen and if they were alright. The event broke down for a few moments while paper cups of water were gotten and the fainters coaxed back to life. With their approval, I finished the story, but by now we had a pattern.
The next night, in San Francisco - even after the Cacophony Society disrupted the readings and sprayed me with whipped cream, all of them dressed as Santa Clauses, even after a publicist punched one Santa in the face, after I bribed them with fifty dollars to go have another drink, after all that - three more people fainted.
The night after, in Berkeley, with a reporter from Publishers Weekly watching, three more people fainted. The next night in Santa Cruz, two more fainted.
The publicist who watched all three events said the people fell the moment I read the words 'corn and peanuts'. It was that detail that made seated people go limp. First, their hands slid off their laps. They shoulders sagged. The heads flopped to one side, and their weight carried them to the floor or into the lap of their neighbor.
Standing people, according to my translator in Italy, they just dropped, disappearing in the crowd. In Bologna, where an actor read 'Guts' in Italian, the listening crowd was riddled with holes, empty spaces where people and fallen and lay on the stone floor. 'Do you know,' the translator said, 'this awful story is being read in a Cathedral?'
In the auditorium of the Beverly Hills library in Los Angeles, a woman near the rear of the hall screamed and screamed for paramedics and an ambulance, crying so hard that her red blouse looked soaked with blood. Just her tears. As her husband twitched on the floor. In the men's bathroom, where another man escaped the story, as he bent to splash cold water on his face, he fainted, cracking his head on the sink.
In Kansas City, another man stepped outside during the reading, escaping to get some air and fainted, splitting his lip on the sidewalk. In Las Vegas, where the country library filled its two auditoriums with people who wanted to hear, one man had a seizure in the theater where I read. In the second room, watching by closed-circuit video, two more people fainted. In Chicago, where the city library filled two theaters, two people also fainted in the room watching the story on video monitor. One of those people waited to say hello at the end of the three-hour book signing, his face still dirty red with dried blood from biting his own lower lip in half. A seizure he didn't remember, during a reading he'd never forget.
Until that tour, I'd only heard rumors about people fainting from stories they heard. Most occurred while Charles Dickens read the murder scene from Oliver Twist. That strangulation scene would send corseted Victorian ladies spiraling to the floor. In recent history, women have fainted while John Irving read a kitchen table abortion scene from his novel Ciderhouse Rules.
By the time my tour arrived in New York City, the casualties were almost equally men and women. All of them young, between eighteen and thirty years old. Usually, a page before the fainters would fall, people would break into a heavy, cold sweat. At some events, by page seven, I could look up from the microphone and see groups of half-naked people pulling off damp sweaters and stripping off wet shirts.
Playboy magazine had declined to buy the 'Guts' story, some staffers saying it was too extreme. But when their Fiction Editor, Chris Napolitano, came to the event at Union Square Barnes and Noble and watched several more half-naked people drop - that night, he and my agent crossed the street to the bar at the W Hotel and inked a deal.
The reporter for Publishers Weekly wrote an article headlined ' Fight Club Author Knocks Them Out Without a Punch."
At Columbia University, the next day, two students fell. The second one, sitting behind my editor and his wife, the young man shouting animal sounds as he thrashed on the floor, where the emergency paramedics kept him from breathing in his own vomit.
As the ambulance took him on a five-hundred-dollar ride to the hospital, my editor walked to the edge of the stage, waved me over, and said, 'I think you've done enough damage with this story. Don't finish reading it. Just go straight into question and answer…"
More and more, in Pittsburgh and Lansing, Madison and Ann Arbor, Boston and Miami and Spokane, I'd finish reading the story to the sound of ambulance sirens arriving outside. If the store had large display windows, I'd finish with the red emergency lights washing across my face. If the store had sharp-edged, hard wooden shelves - even if I warned people about the story's possible effect - some nights ended with clerks sponging up a puddle of blood below where a head had hit on its way down.
In Britain, people fainted at the reading in Leeds. In London, the bathrooms were crowded with well-dressed people who escaped the story to lie on the cold tile floors and recover from what little they'd heard.
In Cambridge, after a man made the signature groan and tumbled out of his chair, a doctor explained the garbled, wet-throat noise that always came a heartbeat before the fall. As you faint, the doctor said, as your neck goes limp and your head flops, your windpipe becomes blocked and you can't breath. To save your life, your body automatically jerks your head forward to open your throat. He used fancy terms like 'soft palate'. The jerk that snaps your head forward and lets you breathe, that motion carries your unaware body, heavy as meat, to the floor.
If you stayed seated, he said, you'd suffocate.
In Italy, with an actor named Massimo, reading the translated story in his booming, trained voice - people dropped as if shot. So many that the could've been targets in a carnival shooting gallery.
In Milan, a man woke up to find himself surrounded by feet. Standing, he shook his fist and shouted: Why did you read that story? Still gray and soaked with sweat, he wanted to know: Was my goal just to humiliate him in public? To make him faint in front of so many people…?
In all, 67 people have fainted while I've read 'Guts'. Over the internet, I now hear stories of other people making their peers pass out by reading it aloud. So that number keeps growing.
For a nine-page story, some nights it takes thirty minutes to read. In the first half, you're pausing for so much laughter from your audience. In the second half, you're pausing as your audience is revived.
For actors, the story has become a popular monologue to read at auditions.
But the first time I read 'Guts', nobody fainted. My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monster or magic. The would be a book you wouldn't want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover.
Because only books have that power.
A motion picture, or music, or television, they have to maintain a certain decorum in order to be broadcast to a vast audience. Other forms of mass media cost too much to product to risk reaching only a limited audience. Only one person. But a book… A book is cheap to print and bind. A book is as private and consensual as sex. A book takes time and effort to consume - something that gives a reader every chance to walk away. Actually, so few people make the effort to read that it's difficult to call books a 'mass medium'. No one really gives a damn about books. No one has bothered to ban a book in decades.
But with that disregard comes the freedom that only books have. And if a storytelling is going to write novels instead of screenplays, that's a freedom you need to exploit. Otherwise, write a movie. That's where the big money's at. Write for television.
But, if you want the freedom to anywhere, talk about anything, then write books. That's why I wrote 'Guts'. Just a three-act short story based on true-life anecdotes.
People write to say this story is the funniest they've ever heard.
People write to say it's the saddest they've ever heard.
And 'Guts' is by no means the darkest or funniest or most upsetting story from the novel Haunted. Some, I didn't dare read in public.
These are the places that only books can go.
This is the advantage that books still have. This is why I write.
Thank you for reading my work.