When I decided to dedicate April to suspense, I wanted to cover a variety of approaches in a variety of media. Hitchcock suspense is the most prevalent and recognizable at this point. It's the style that I refer to in reviews with the "we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don't" imagery. The disconnect between audience and the character is a strong, time-tested method of building suspense. The opposite can be just as effective. Chuck Palahniuk uses it to great effect in his short story "Guts" from the portmanteau novel Haunted. The novel, a spin on the Amicus-horror film anthology style, has a great set of short stories surrounded by a bizarre framing device. The personal stories of the various participants are more engaging than the story of the artist commune that connects them all, which is the conceit of the novel.
"Guts" is the crown jewel in the collection. This is the story that will live in infamy for causing people to pass out at bookstore appearances across the country. It is a strange, unsettling, and ultimately graphic tale of sexual exploration gone wrong. It's a perfect storm of hot-button issues to create publicity that could easily overshadow the story itself if it wasn't so well-written.
The unnamed narrator recounts a series of really stupid decisions by young people who are trying to eek out a bit more pleasure in their lives. Whether it be by carrot, by towel, or by candlestick, the young men in the story are put in great peril and humiliated for exploring their sexual urges in unconventional ways. The little stories are broken up with brief looks at language, society, and the backdooring of sexual culture.
Each little vignette in "Guts" gets a little more extreme than the next. The payoffs are bigger each time--in humor, sadness, anger, or pain. Then it begins to dawn on you that the next story doesn't end after two or three paragraphs. The next story is the last story and it's longer than all the other stories combined.
From what you learned already in the story, the narrator is going to face consequences for trying to pleasure himself with the aid of a pool. He even warns you right at the start that holding his breath will be his downfall.
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.
The obtuse warning is quickly forgotten with all the asides and near-rambling that happens when the narrator diagnoses the world's problems. Once the narrator breaks the surface of the water for the first time, you know something bad will happen. Then that bad thing gets worse with each paragraph until the result is almost unbearable. The story ends and you can breathe again but the fresh air does not erase the panic from the page.
Chuck Palahniuk doesn't exactly use misdirection to make "Guts" work. True, the actually story isn't revealed right away but the circumstances do not change. Young men are punished by fate for doing stupid things for pleasure. The only shift leading into the narrator's own story is the level of detail. The stories are dirty little anecdotes and bar facts until the consequences hit home for the narrator.
In Palahniuk's story, the bomb has already gone off. We're left with a narrator trying to pick up the pieces and let you know exactly what the explosion was like. The story is so personal and traumatic that he keeps deflecting--to other people and other topics, anything to delay the recollection of his fate. We don't know what's going to happen and how far the story will go and that creates suspense. It's not that we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don't; it's the character knows when the bomb went off but he doesn't really want to tell you.
Thoughts on "Guts?" Share them below.