Legendary writer Chuck Palahniuk is known for works like Fight Club, Choke, and Invisible Monsters. But his latest long-form fiction is perhaps one of his strangest, wise: a novella that’s also a coloring book. It’s a tale as darkly humorous as an anecdote Palahniuk has of another beloved writer, horror maestro Clive Barker.
In celebration of Legacy’s release, Palahniuk shared an essay with us about chance, and sometimes unfortunate, encounters in his life with celebrity—from the tragic to the weird, a tale about how even his biggest idols have had to go through some bizarre scenarios because of their fame. The whole thing is a great read, but the highlight is absolutely Palahniuk’s tales from horror legends Stephen King and Clive Barker. Check out the full essay below, making its debut here on io9.
His face looked almost famous, the actor sitting on the opposite side of the table. His face was semi-recognizable, but his name had yet to catch up. He’d played in that Tobey Maguire movie. He’d played the captain of the basketball team. Pleasantville, the movie was called. And he’d been the naïve 1950s jock named Biff.
Now he was on a tour to drum up publicity for a new film. I didn’t know what.
We were both in the Green Room of a San Francisco television station, each waiting his turn to appear on a seven-minute segment of some locally produced morning show. The show’s producer gave each guest a clipboard with a list of the questions we’d be asked on camera. The year was 2001, and I was touring for my novel, Choke, but I never glanced at my questions. A train wreck was in progress, and I couldn’t look away.
The actor asked for a red pen, and when the producer brought one he began to scribble out each question on his list, saying, “Do not ask me this!” He worked his way down the page. “Don’t you dare ask me this!” Red-lining questions as the producer stood at his elbow. A monitor was mounted near the ceiling, and we could see the current segment being shot. The actor was next up. His gaze settled on the last remaining question. He looked up, his eyes blazing and growled, “If you ask me how it feels to be this good looking, I swear, I will walk off the set!”
The producer took the scribbled-on, unreadable list of now-banned questions. She said, “If you’ll come with me, Mr. Walker.”
Of course. It was Paul Walker. He was shilling for The Fast and the Furious. He appeared on the monitor sitting opposite the on-air interviewers. The interviewers stared dumbstruck at the entire crossed-out line of inquiry. No one said anything for what passes as an eternity on live television. Seven minutes.
I love that story. I love any story where suddenly there’s blood in the water. Everything goes sideways. Nobody dies, but for a moment they wish they could.
In television green rooms I could sit with Eddie Fisher who was on the road to flog his book Been There, Done That. People doing local daytime television were either on their way up or down the ladder.
Another brush with fame was Eric Nies, former model, former reality television star, who was touring to sell a rubber exercise strap called the “Abaratus.” At another San Francisco TV station, the show’s floor director asked him to remove his shirt and do sit-ups so they could shoot some B-roll to use during his interview. Nies did sit-ups and sit-ups and sit-ups until his bare back was leaving a dark V-shaped sweat stain on the carpet. Panting, he’d ask, “You have it?” The floor director would exchange smirks with the cameraman, and say, “No, we need a little more…” This went on, the sweating and the baiting, forever. Clearly a cruel little power dynamic taking place.
Yet another San Francisco story involves my friend, Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting and so many other great books. He and his wife, Beth, had invited me to the Exit Theater to attend the second night’s performance of a play he’d written. Babylon Heights. The previous night’s opening had been a sold-out, standing ovation success, and I’m sure they looked for more of the same. That second night, no one arrived. For whatever reason the entire audience consisted of Irvine, Beth, and me. The actors were so unnerved they began to forget their lines. The male lead broke down in tears on stage. They got through. We all got through. But that’s a scale of pain you don’t forget.
Another book-related nightmare was the kid who stood in line to get his books signed by Clive Barker. As he stepped up to the autograph table, this kid whipped out a razorblade and announced, “Clive, this is for you!” and slashed both of his own wrists. Blood poured forth.
Years afterward I asked Barker what he’d done. He insisted the wounds weren’t that deep. Nevertheless he’d had the focus to lean over the table. Barker had grabbed both of the kid’s wrists and twisted them so he could press the bleeding cuts down, against the kid’s books. He’d staunched the bleeding long enough to save the kid’s life, and Barker said he’d even scrawled his own signature across the array of books—in the kid’s blood—before paramedics arrived.
In the same vein—pun intended, extremely intended—almost the opposite happened to another horror writer. This story comes secondhand from a friend, Kim Ricketts, who for years ran the author events at the University of Washington Bookstore. One night, over beers, she told me how she’d negotiated to get an event with Stephen King. The terms of his appearance called for a venue limited to five thousand fans. Each fan could bring three books to have autographed. Bodyguards would have to be provided as well as someone who could hold an ice pack to Mr. King’s shoulder for the duration of the eight-hour signing.
Kim had arranged all of this, and on the day of the event she found herself amidst five thousand people in Seattle’s Town Hall, a vast former church on Capitol Hill. She opted to hold the ice to King’s shoulder, and a few people into the long, long line he asked her for some bandages.
Describing the scene to me, Kim said he had enormous calluses on his fingers from holding pens, no doubt from doing these marathon author signings. One of those calluses had cracked and blood was leaking and smearing on the books as he autographed them. Kim agreed to find the bandages, but not before a nearby fan had overheard the exchange. Before Kim could step away, the fan shouted, “Don’t bandage Mr. King before he bleeds in my books!”
At that all five thousand people waiting began shouting, “No fair! If Mr. King bleeds in his books, then he should bleed in my books!” It was deafening.
Kim leaned close and said, “They’re your readers. It’s your call.”
She told me that he shrugged off the pain and went on to smear a little blood in all fifteen thousand books brought for his autograph. After eight hours he was so weak the bodyguards had to carry him to his limousine. But before the car could depart for the hotel a group of fans jumped into their own car. They’d arrived too late to be among the five thousand so they deliberately rammed King’s car for the chance to meet their favorite author. The limousine was totaled with King inside.
Writer’s have an old saying: “Getting published isn’t the hard part… it’s the first hard part.”
It’s hard to follow the Stephen King story, but my own Waterloo happened in Skokie, Illinois. It was the tour for my novel Rant, a fact I only remember because I tossed oversized jelly-filled eyeballs into a large crowd, and one struck and knocked down a display of Jane Austen novels. I offered to pay for the books, but the store was already hating me. During the question-and-answer ritual I called on exactly the wrong man. Usually a sixth sense steers me away from the really hostile people, but this man wore a suit and tie and spoke with a Scottish brogue. In front of several hundred people, he asked, “Do you masturbate to Brad Pitt’s picture?” The silence was crushing. Broken only by the giggling of the hateful bookstore staff. In lieu of anything truly brilliant—No, dude, I masturbate to your mother’s picture… No, dude, I masturbate to my bank statements.—instead of the perfect rejoinder, I said, “No, I do not masturbate to Brad Pitt’s picture.” Lame. Epic fail.
The signing lasted until one in the morning. The bookstore staff did not speak to me the entire time. The manager pointed at the door, and I left.
That’s why I collect these stories of disaster.
Because when things go sideways… when there’s blood in the water—No, dude, I masturbate to the idea of punching your smug Scottish face.—these stories are a comfort.
And this isn’t schadenfreude, either. The takeaway is that even my most-respected heroes, even at the peak of their acclaim, have faced public ridicule. Just when they should feel safe from indignity, they were made to squirm. And they survived.
And I will also crash and burn. And I will survive.
And so will we all.
Legacy: An Off-Color Novella for You to Color is available now.