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Acclaim for Chuck Palahniuk’s
“Dark riffing on modernity is the reason people rea Palahniuk. His books are not so much novels as jagged fables, cautionary tales about the creeping peril repre sented by almost everything.”
“Few writers this side of Kurt Vonnegut can summon up the intensity and precision to control such a blackly humorous situation… . Palahniuk is proving to be an accessible and ambitious writer of fables from the culture wars.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“Palahniuk conjures grief, confusion, mystery and fear from the unlikeliest sources … [and] teases amusement from the darkest corners of our culture.”
“By turns disturbing, creepy, sweet, sad, horrible and exquisite… . A harrowing and hilarious glimpse into the future of civilization.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[Palahniuk] knows how to spin whacked-out stories particular to our times… . Employs a playfully perverse wit and a good eye for repellent details.”
—The Seattle Times
“Twisted and nihilistic… . The novel packs a dark comic wallop.”
“A darkly twisted yarn… . Palahniuk has succeeded in crafting a story that is taut and compelling, insightful and scathing, deeply disturbing and deeply disturbed.”
“Deliriously rich in ideas and entertaining in its stream-of-consciousness riffing”
Chuck Palahniuk’s four other novels are the bestselling Fight Club, which was made into a film by director David Fincher, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Also by Chuck Palahniuk
I dedicate this book, with special thanks, to …
… who read my stuff when nobody read my stuff.
At first, the new owner pretends he never looked at the living room floor. Never really looked. Not the first time they toured the house. Not when the inspector showed them through it. They’d measured rooms and told the movers where to set the couch and piano, hauled in everything they owned, and never really stopped to look at the living room floor. They pretend.
Then on the first morning they come downstairs, there it is, scratched in the white-oak floor:
Some new owners pretend a friend has done it as a joke. Others are sure it’s because they didn’t tip the movers.
A couple of nights later, a baby starts to cry from inside the north wall of the master bedroom.
This is when they usually call.
And this new owner on the phone is not what our hero, Helen Hoover Boyle, needs this morning.
This stammering and whining.
What she needs is a new cup of coffee and a seven-letter word for “poultry.” She needs to hear what’s happening on the police scanner. Helen Boyle snaps her fingers until her secretary looks in from the outer office. Our hero wraps both hands around the mouthpiece and points the telephone receiver at the scanner, saying, “It’s a code nine-eleven.”
And her secretary, Mona, shrugs and says, “So?”
So she needs to look it up in the codebook.
And Mona says, “Relax. It’s a shoplifter.”
Murders, suicides, serial killers, accidental overdoses, you can’t wait until this stuff is on the front page of the newspaper. You can’t let another agent beat you to the next rainmaker.
Helen needs the new owner at 325 Crestwood Terrace to shut up a minute.
Of course, the message appeared in the living room floor. What’s odd is the baby doesn’t usually start until the third night. First the phantom message, then the baby cries all night. If the owners last long enough, they’ll be calling in another week about the face that appears, reflected in the water when you fill the bathtub. A wadded-up face of wrinkles, the eyes hollowed-out dark holes.
The third week brings the phantom shadows that circle around and around the dining room walls when everybody is seated at the table. There might be more events after that, but nobody’s lasted a fourth week.
To the new owner, Helen Hoover Boyle says, “Unless you’re ready to go to court and prove the house is unlivable, unless you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the previous owners knew this was happening …” She says, “I have to tell you.
” She says, “You lose a case like this, after you generate all this bad publicity, and that house will be worthless.”
It’s not a bad house, 325 Crestwood Terrace, English Tudor, newer composition roof, four bedrooms, three and a half baths. An in-ground pool. Our hero doesn’t even have to look at the fact sheet. She’s sold this house six times in the past two years.
Another house, the New England saltbox on Eton Court, six bedrooms, four baths, pine-paneled entryway, and blood running down the kitchen walls, she’s sold that house eight times in the past four years.
To the new owner, she says, “Got to put you on hold for a minute,” and she hits the red button.
Helen, she’s wearing a white suit and shoes, but not snow white. It’s more the white of downhill skiing in Banff with a private car and driver on call, fourteen pieces of matched luggage, and a suite at the Hotel Lake Louise.
To the doorway, our hero says, “Mona? Moonbeam?” Louder, she says, “Spirit-Girl?”
She drums her pen against the folded newspaper page on her desk and says, “What’s a three-letter word for ‘rodent’?”
The police scanner gargles words, mumbles and barks, repeating “Copy?” after every line. Repeating “Copy?”
Helen Boyle shouts, “This coffee is not going to cut it.”
In another hour, she needs to be showing a Queen Anne, five bedrooms, with a mother-in-law apartment, two gas fireplaces, and the face of a barbiturate suicide that appears late at night in the powder room mirror. After that, there’s a split-level ranch with FAG heat, a sunken conversation pit, and the reoccurring phantom gunshots of a double homicide that happened over a decade ago. This is all in her thick daily planner, thick and bound in what looks like red leather. This is her record of everything.
She takes another sip of coffee and says, “What do you call this? Swiss Army mocha? Coffee is supposed to taste like coffee.”
Mona comes to the doorway with her arms folded across her front and says, “What?”
And Helen says, “I need you to swing by”—she shuffles some fact sheets on her blotter—“swing by 4673 Willmont Place. It’s a Dutch Colonial with a sunroom, four bedrooms, two baths, and an aggravated homicide.”
The police scanner says, “Copy?”
“Just do the usual,” Helen says, and she writes the address on a note card and holds it out. “Don’t resolve anything. Don’t burn any sage. Don’t exorcise shit.”
Mona takes the note card and says, “Just check it for vibes?”
Helen slashes the air with her hand and says, “I don’t want anybody going down any tunnels toward any bright light. I want these freaks staying right here, on this astral plane, thank you.” She looks at her newspaper and says, “They have all eternity to be dead. They can hang around in that house another fifty years and rattle some chains.”
Helen Hoover Boyle looks at the blinking hold light and says, “What did you pick up at the six-bedroom Spanish yesterday?”
And Mona rolls her eyes at the ceiling. She pushes out her jaw and blows a big sigh, straight up to flop the hair on her forehead, and says, “There’s a definite energy there. A subtle presence. But the floor plan is wonderful.” A black silk cord loops around her neck and disappears into the corner of her mouth.
And our hero says, “Screw the floor plan.”
Forget those dream houses you only sell once every fifty years. Forget those happy homes. And screw subtle: cold spots, strange vapors, irritable pets. What she needed was blood running down the walls. She needed ice-cold invisible hands that pull children out of bed at night. She needed blazing red eyes in the dark at the foot of the basement stairs. That and decent curb appeal.
The bungalow at 521 Elm Street, it has four bedrooms, original hardware, and screams in the attic.
The French Normandy at 7645 Weston Heights has arched windows, a butler’s pantry, leaded-glass pocket doors, and a body that appears in the upstairs hallway with multiple stab wounds.
The ranch-style at 248 Levee Place—five bedrooms, four and a half baths with a brick patio—it has the reappearing blood coughed up on the master bathroom walls after a drain cleaner poisoning.
Distressed houses, Realtors call them.
These houses that never sold because no one liked to show them. No Realtor wanted to host an open house there, risk spending any time there alone. Or these were the houses that sold and sold again every six months because no one could live there. A good string of these houses, twenty or thirty exclusives, and Helen could turn off the police scanner. She could quit searching the obituaries and the crime pages for suicides and homicides. She could stop sending Mona out to check on every possible lead. She could just kick back and find a five-letter word for “equine.”
“Plus I need you to pick up my cleaning,” she says. “And get some decent coffee.” She points her pen at Mona and says, “And out of respect for professionalism, leave the little Rasta doohickeys at home.”
Mona pulls the black silk cord until a quartz crystal pops out of her mouth, shining and wet. She blows on it, saying, “It’s a crystal. My boyfriend, Oyster, gave it to me.”
And Helen says, “You’re dating a boy named Oyster?”
And Mona drops the crystal so it hangs against her chest and says, “He says it’s for my own protection.” The crystal soaks a darker wet spot on her orange blouse.
“Oh, and before you go,” Helen says, “get me Bill or Emily Burrows on the phone.”
Helen presses the hold button and says, “Sorry about that.” She says there are a couple of clear options here. The new owner can move, just sign a quitclaim deed and the house becomes the bank’s problem.
“Or,” our hero says, “you give me a confidential exclusive to sell the house. What we call a vest-pocket listing.”
And maybe the new owner says no this time. But after that hideous face appears between his legs in the bathwater, after the shadows start marching around the walls, well, everyone says yes eventually.
On the phone, the new owner says, “And you won’t tell any buyers about the problem?”
And Helen says, “Don’t even finish unpacking. We’ll just tell people you’re in the process of moving out.”
If anybody asks, tell them you’re being transferred out of town. Tell them you loved this house.
She says, “Everything else will just be our little secret.”
From the outer office, Mona says, “I have Bill Burrows on line two.”
And the police scanner says, “Copy?”
Our hero hits the next button and says, “Bill!”
She mouths the word Coffee at Mona. She jerks her head toward the window and mouths, Go.
The scanner says, “Do you copy?”
This was Helen Hoover Boyle. Our hero. Now dead but not dead. Here was just another day in her life. This was the life she lived before I came along. Maybe this is a love story, maybe not. It depends on how much I can believe myself.
This is about Helen Hoover Boyle. Her haunting me. The way a song stays in your head. The way you think life should be. How anything holds your attention.
How your past goes with you into every day of your future.
That is. This is. It’s all of it, Helen Hoover Boyle.
We’re all of us haunted and haunting.
On this, the last ordinary day of her regular life, our hero says into the phone, “Bill Burrows?”
She says, “You need to get Emily on the extension because I’ve just found you two the perfect new home.”
She writes the word “horse” and says, “It’s my understanding that the sellers are very motivated.”
The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact. Even play-by-play description on the radio, the home runs and strikeouts, even that’s delayed a few minutes. Even live television is postponed a couple seconds.
Even sound and light can only go so fast.
Another problem is the teller. The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter. The media bias. How the messenger shapes the facts. What journalists call The Gatekeeper. How the presentation is everything.
The story behind the story.
Where I’m telling this from is one café after another. Where I’m writing this book, chapter by chapter, is never the same small town or city or truck stop in the middle of nowhere.
What these places all have in common are miracles. You read about this stuff in the pulp tabloids, the kind of healings and sightings, the miracles, that never get reported in the mainstream press.
This week, it’s the Holy Virgin of Welburn, New Mexico. She came flying down Main Street last week. Her long red and black dreadlocks whipping behind her, her bare feet dirty she wore an Indian cotton skirt printed in two shades of brown and a denim halter top. It’s all in this week’s World Miracles Report, next to the cashier in every supermarket in America.
And here I am, a week late. Always one step behind. After the fact.
The Flying Virgin had fingernails painted bright pink with white tips. A French manicure, some witnesses call it. The Flying Virgin used a can of Bug-Off brand insect fogger, and across the blue New Mexican sky, she wrote:
STOP HAVING BABYS
The can of Bug-Off she dropped. It’s right now headed for the Vatican. For analysis. Right now, you can buy postcards of the event. Videos even.
Almost everything you can buy is after the fact. Caught. Dead. Cooked.
In the souvenir videos, the Flying Virgin shakes the can of fogger Floating above one end of Main Street, she waves at the crowd. And there’s a bush of brown hair under her arm. The moment before she starts writing, a gust of wind lifts her skirt, and the Flying Virgin’s not wearing any panties. Between her legs, she’s shaved.
This is where I’m writing this story from today. Here in a roadside diner, talking to witnesses in Welburn, New Mexico. Here with me is Sarge, a baked potato of an old Irish cop. On the table between us is the local newspaper, folded to show a three-column ad that says:
Attention Patrons of All Plush Interiors Furniture Stores
The ad says, “If poisonous spiders have hatched from your new upholstered furniture, you may be eligible to take part in a class-action lawsuit.” And the ad gives a phone number you could call, but it’s no use.
The Sarge has the kind of loose neck skin that if you pinch it, when you let go the skin stays pinched. He has to go find a mirror and rub the skin to make it go flat.
Outside the diner, people are still driving into town. People kneel and pray for another visitation. The Sarge puts his big mitts together and pretends to pray, his eyes rolled sideways to look out the window, his holster unsnapped, his pistol loaded and ready for skeet shooting.
After she was done skywriting, the Flying Virgin blew kisses to people. She flashed a two-finger peace sign. She hovered just above the trees, clutching her skirt closed with one fist, and she shook her red and black dreadlocks back and waved, and Amen. She was gone, behind the mountains, over the horizon. Gone.
Still, you can’t trust everything you read in the newspaper.
The Flying Madonna, it wasn’t a miracle.
It was magic.
These aren’t saints. They’re spells.
The Sarge and me, we’re not here to witness anything. We’re witch-hunters.
Still, this isn’t a story about here and now. Me, the Sarge, the Flying Virgin. Helen Hoover Boyle. What I’m writing is the story of how we met. How we got here.
They ask you just one question. Just before you graduate from journalism school, they tell you to imagine you’re a reporter. Imagine you work at a daily big-city newspaper, and one Christmas Eve, your editor sends you out to investigate a death.
The police and paramedics are there. The neighbors, wearing bathrobes and slippers, crowd the hallway of the slummy tenement. Inside the apartment, a young couple is sobbing beside their Christmas tree. Their baby has choked to death on an ornament. You get what you need, the baby’s name and age and all, and you get back to the newspaper around midnight and write the story on press deadline.
You submit it to your editor and he rejects it because you don’t say the color of the ornament. Was it red or green? You couldn’t look, and you didn’t think to ask.
With the pressroom screaming for the front page, your choices are:
Call the parents and ask the color.
Or refuse to call and lose your job.
This was the fourth estate. Journalism. And where I went to school, just this one question is the entire final exam for the Ethics course. It’s an either/or question. My answer was to call the paramedics. Items like this have to be catalogued. The ornament had to be bagged and photographed in some file of evidence. No way would I call the parents after midnight on Christmas Eve.