There’s a long-standing theory that in times of real-world strife, readers lose their appetite for fictional horrors. That has never been true. The carnage of pulp magazines only gained popularity after the world wars, while Vietnam and the end of the hippie dream led directly to The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and the ascendency of Stephen King. And now our freshly unstable world is proving fertile ground for the growth of new budding nightmares.

So far, 2024 has been brimming with fantastic horror stories. I’ve done my absolute best to curate a list of the must-read titles released up to this point. The most promising element of the list below is in the breadth, depth, and variety of the darkness at play. Unlike previous “golden” eras of horror, there is no dominant trend. Rather, horror writers are digging their own grim tunnels into territory old and new. Retro haunted-house stories sit alongside extreme body horror. Whimsical horror comedies work in tandem with serious political subcurrents. Horror is not just responding to the perma-crisis we’re all living through; it’s providing respite and escape from it. Horror teaches as much as it terrifies. It heals as much as it hurts.

This list contains titles from the whole spectrum of the genre. There are stories to satisfy the most bloodthirsty tastes, and some that will lead the uneasy on their first forays into the shadowy end of the library. Stay with us, because we’ll be updating the list as the year continues.

Enjoy. It’s good to be scared.

The House of Last Resort, by Christopher Golden

Really good haunted houses are few and far between. These days, the spirit-infested home too often falls into high camp or is put to such elevated metaphorical purpose that it forgets to actually be scary. The House of Last Resort has no such problem. When Tommy and Kate relocate from the U.S. to a drowsy Italian village, it’s supposed to be a better life. Of course, their new abode makes a mockery of this well-being kick. The titular house comes complete with hidden rooms, hallucinations, and a historical entanglement in the Catholic Church’s struggle against some very persistent demons. Golden draws on the very best of seventies and eighties pulp-horror influences, with hordes of rats, ambulatory corpses, and a grand diabolic finale. But he makes time for quiet moments of chilling intensity, including a kitchen-table conversation that ranks among the most disquieting scenes of the year. The House of Last Resort is horror that goes hard but never forgets to be fun. It’s the author’s finest novel to date.

This Wretched Valley, by Jenny Kiefer

If you watched the climbing documentary Free Solo and thought, Okay, climbing a nine-hundred-foot cliff face without a rope is scary, but you know what it really needs? Murder ghosts!, then Kiefer’s debut will scratch your itch. This Wretched Valley follows four intrepid fools into the deep Kentucky woods, where they plan to map and climb a brand-new ascent. Of course, like any backcountry worthy of a horror fan’s time, their chosen ground is saturated with bloody history. It doesn’t take kindly to interlopers, either, particularly these vain, self-absorbed numskulls. There are comparisons to be made to Scott Smith’s adventure-horror classic The Ruins, but most crucial is Kiefer’s absolute lack of mercy for her characters. For much of the book, you gleefully anticipate their foreshadowed deaths, but the manner of their end is so brutal and so desolate that you can’t avoid a creeping empathy. Kiefer has stared you down. She has more belly for this than you. She wins.

Among the Living, by Tim Lebbon

Lebbon’s most recent novels serve as a loose thematic trilogy, connected by a focus on high-octane adventure and a backdrop of quickening climate disaster. However, whereas Eden and The Last Storm were genre-splicing affairs, Among the Living goes full-bore on the horror, pitting an uneasy assemblage of climate activists and mineral excavators against a viral threat long buried in the Arctic tundra. This is no mere illness, though. What Lebbon conjures up is an intelligent disease, able to control its hosts’ thoughts and behaviour, creating a paranoiac trap in which the characters cannot even trust their own motivations. It’s easy to think of comparisons—The Thing, The Last of Us—but Lebbon brings a flair for action scenes and his experience with endurance sport, propelling the story with unexpected physical and psychological dimensions. Fast-paced, compulsive, suitably horrifying: Among the Living reads like Michael Crichton having a particularly bad dream.

In the Valley of the Headless Men, by L.P. Hernandez

If you’re familiar with Canada’s Nahanni Valley, you’ll know that wilderness has a history and lore thick enough to fill several novels. Seriously, you should take a Wikipedia dive; thank me later. All that mystery is buried in the substrata of In the Valley of the Headless Men, but Hernandez’s excursion resembles the surrealism of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, though less cold and less austere. Hernandez has a particular gift for the details of grief: the final sip of a dead mother’s lemonade, a lost child’s sock tucked safely in a purse; each is a small totem of heartbreak. And though the flesh of his novella is pared to the bone, somehow he still accommodates a trio of characters—each with their own arc of loss and redemption—on a shared journey to some ineffable, elusive truth. As for what else waits there, I shan’t tell you. it’s best you decide for yourself…and I’m still not sure that I even really know.

The Haunting of Velkwood, by Gwendolyn Kiste

What if an entire neighbourhood became a ghost? Not just the people but the buildings and the street itself? And what if three girls escaped that fate, then returned twenty years later to see what remained of the homes and families they left in that sunlit purgatory? It’s a concept high enough to give you a nosebleed, but Kiste reins it in masterfully, never worrying too much about the mad logic of the situation. Instead, she centres the story on more mundane forms of haunting: the dark gravity of memory, family, and trauma. The Haunting of Velkwood reads like a literary double negative, a brand-new thing emerging from the overlap of Twin Peaks’ suburban uncanny and the melancholy nostalgia of The Virgin Suicides. Kiste doesn’t shy away from these references (David Lynch is everywhere in Velkwood), but she’s still written one of the most original—and downright strange—novels of the year so far.

Mouth, by Joshua Hull

Before turning to fiction, Hull wrote the screenplay for Glorious, a cult horror movie about an eldritch entity invoking apocalypse through a glory hole in a public-bathroom stall. Though not a sequel of any kind, Hull’s debut novella shares much of his movie’s grindhouse DNA. It also has a hole of its own in the titular Mouth: an inexplicable toothed orifice in the ground inherited by Randy, a good ol’ all-American drifter. Randy’s attempt to satisfy Mouth’s hunger forces him into a partnership with Abigail, a young woman with secrets to keep and vengeance to seek. Mouth comes in handy there. The novella is rapid and raw and unburdened by plot complexity, but there’s something so endearing about both the book and its innocent monster that you can’t help but cheer them on. Imagine Roger Corman’s take on Frankenstein and you’re somewhere close to Mouth’s goofy charm.

King Nyx, by Kirsten Bakis

King Nyx is at the softer end of the horror colour chart. There are no ghosts or demons, and there’s barely any blood (though there are life-size marionettes to haunt your dreams). Instead, Bakis has crafted a compelling period mystery centred on the island home of a wealthy tycoon whose wives just keep dying before their time. When a young woman accompanies her husband on a personal writing retreat to the island, everything seems immediately off. The couple are quarantined in a private cabin. She sees strange bearlike figures in the woods and finds mysterious notes aplenty. All the oddity suggests something very wrong is going on in the Big House. It’s all wonderfully bizarre, but buried beneath the novel’s gothic veneer is an interrogation of supposed male genius, balanced so precariously on the shoulders of unremembered women. King Nyx is one of those thrillers that smuggle real substance into their scares without ever taking on a lecturing tone. It’s also a great gateway novel for readers who would usually shy away from horror’s excesses.

The Angel of Indian Lake, by Stephen Graham Jones

Graham Jones made this list in 2022 and again in 2023 with the first two instalments of the Indian Lake Trilogy. Now, with The Angel of Indian Lake, he absolutely sticks the landing. In this third and concluding volume, we return to the bruised and bloodied town of Proofrock, Idaho, for a final confrontation between Jade Daniels and the many monsters in her past, her present, and her head. Just as in the preceding books, Angel begins in the cold chaos of violence and metatextual references, which slowly coalesce into something human, heartfelt, and, by the end, emotionally overwhelming. Unexpected bodies rise and fall, and at no point could even this seasoned horror reader rest easy that the absolute worst would not come to pass. The Angel of Indian Lake is an almost indecent success; Jones should not have been able to guide this freewheeling, snowballing mass of story home. But he does. And like its now-iconic heroine, it remains defiant and unbowed to the end.

The Black Girl Survives in This One, edited by Desiree S. Evans and Saraciea J. Fennell

As I’ve covered elsewhere, horror has not traditionally been kind to characters of colour. Evans and Fennell’s anthology is sure to become a key text in the Black horror renaissance working to correct that injustice. The stories included here share one crucial characteristic: Each features a young Black female protagonist who must survive—but otherwise, it’s a sprawling survey of horror’s various subsections, every one refreshed by the Black female gaze. L.L. McKinney’s “Harvester” is nightmarish Americana about a very unusual cornfield. Zakiya Dalila Harris’s “TMI” is an of-the-moment technophobic satire about privacy and identity, while Evans’s “The Brides of Devil’s Bayou” offers old-school Southern Gothic of the finest stripe. The Black Girl Survives in This One may be billed as young-adult literature, but stories like Monica Brashears’s “The Skittering Thing” are pure adult-grade nightmare fuel. The best of them pose a question that underlies the entire anthology: Is surviving the same thing as having a happy ending?

Bless Your Heart, by Lindy Ryan

This has been a pretty bleak and bloody list of stories so far. Let Ryan pour some sunshine into your TBR. Bless Your Heart is the tale of the Evans women, a matriarchal dynasty who runs the funeral home in their small, quaint corner of Southeast Texas. Unfortunately, the dead in their town don’t always stay dead, forcing generations of Evanses to moonlight as ghoul killers. During a particularly bad infestation of undead, the elderly Ducey (horror’s best octogenarian for a good while), her daughter Lenore, and her adult granddaughter Grace must deal with the problem while indoctrinating young Grace into their clandestine guardianship. The word that immediately springs to mind is charming, as this novel has plenty of local colour and turns of phrase. However, what elevates Bless Your Heart beyond pastiche is Ryan’s willingness to revel in full-on gore and to follow through on some genuine, last-minute emotional stakes. This was announced as the first in a series of novels, and I can’t wait to see—and try to work out—what’s going to happen next.

This Skin Was Once Mine and Other Disturbances, by Eric LaRocca

In the few years since LaRocca burst onto the horror scene with Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, he has steadily grown a reputation for wielding disgust and excess to singular effect. This new collection contains four novelettes, each spinning around twin themes of obsession and harm. In the title story, an estranged daughter goes home for her father’s funeral, only to discover truly hideous secrets in her family home. “All the Parts of You That Won’t Easily Burn” may go off in a batshit-crazy direction toward the end, but the central conceit of a self-harming cult with a penchant for broken glass evokes the very best of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood body horror. It’s the closing story, though—on the surface the smallest and most superficial—that really got under my skin. “Prickle” presents a vicious game of one-upmanship between two elderly friends that takes the book to a gleeful, capering conclusion. It shows that beneath his coat of many nasty colours, LaRocca has a very good (and very dark) sense of humour.

Diavola, by Jennifer Thorne

I talk a lot about “fun” horror—the kind of horror that tries to scare you, for sure, but makes the process entertaining, enjoyable, a romp, rather than a raid on your psyche. This is exactly what Thorne delivers in Diavola. As with Christopher Golden’s The House of Last Resort, Thorne transports the reader to a tiny Italian village for some very dysfunctional family drama, though any loving central relationship is replaced with the hilariously maddening repartee between Anna and her siblings. Their scratchy dynamic is a grounding contrast to the supernatural goings-on, revolving around a tower in their villa that should not be opened. Shocker: It’s opened, and craziness ensues. Diavola is a gothic gem, as full of sharply observed characterisation as it is genre tropes. I read it in two sittings and even now I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh as much as I did. Pack this for your next holiday and avoid talking to your own family.

The Underhistory, by Kaaron Warren

The Underhistory may be the most intriguing horror novel of the year so far. It’s a blend of ghost story and home-invasion thriller in which a group of criminals descends upon a haunted house in the middle of a guided tour. That’s enough of a concept to set the novel apart, but Warren fully commits to a structural conceit that exposes how the architecture of houses and story are one and the same. Each chapter is titled after the whimsical name that the elderly guide, Pera, has given to the rooms of her home. While she takes her customers through the details of the house—all the while trying to placate and manage the bad men in their midst—she also reveals her own gothic history, embedded in the peculiarities of each room. Gradually, we learn that Pera is far more capable than we (or her assailants) imagine her to be. And her house is a very bad place to invade. The Underhistory reads like Shirley Jackson or Catriona Ward at their most gothically playful. It’s a wholly unique intellectual exercise and a deeply compelling page-turner.

Incidents Around the House, by Josh Malerman

Malerman’s Incidents Around the House is the only book on this list not yet published. But I include it now rather than in later instalments because I want to give you the chance to buy this on the very day it’s released. It’s a deeply discomfiting, imaginatively ripe, yet ruthlessly efficient novel in which eight-year old Bela is targeted by a malign presence in her home. This “Other Mommy" hounds the girl with a request to “go into your heart.” What follows is a chase narrative of claustrophobic terror that almost transcends articulation. Glimpses of Other Mommy are elusive to the point of impressionism (she has long, hairy arms and “ slides across the floor”). What does this mean? What is she? We never know, as we are only ever given the compromised perspective of a frantic child or a terrified adult. It’s as if Malerman has channelled something into the very sentences of this novel, something that is so much greater than the sum of its linguistic parts. Simply put—and I do not say this lightly—Incidents Around the House is the most purely effective horror novel I have ever read.

Originally published on Esquire US

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When Chelsea Monroe-Cassel began chronicling the foods of Games of Thrones for her punnily named cookbook A Feast of Ice and Fire, she looked for culinary inspiration in the recipes of the Middle Ages.

We’re talking properly medieval stuff. The sorts of recipes that assume you’ll be killing your own goat and will know by habit how to roast it, and that you’re already equipped with a kitchen where meals are prepared in cauldrons and curing salt is on the cutting edge of cooking technology. “They don’t have timings, they don’t have ingredients, they don’t have quantities,” Monroe-Cassel says. “So you have to pore through all kinds of related material to treasure hunt for details.”

It’s exactly the sort of offbeat gastronomic excursion that Monroe-Cassel has become familiar with throughout her career as a fictional-food creator. Alongside feasting at the tables of Westeros, she has tasted the snacks of the USS Enterprise and drunk the soups of Tatooine. She’s eaten the lembas bread beloved by the hobbits of the Shire and tucked into the pies and stews of the fantasy world of Azeroth. She has travelled to places with her stomach that most people go only with their minds. Yet in making these journeys, she’s been far from alone.

The past decade has ushered in a wave of such fictional feasting through a genre of cookbooks that reverse engineer the foods of popular movies, television shows, books, and video games into recipes for the home kitchen. Thumb through The Official Harry Potter Cookbook and you’ll find instructions for whipping up a batch of Hagrid’s Dragon Eggs. Open The Unofficial Stranger Things Cookbook for a method of turning figs into Demogorgons.

In The Official Witcher Cookbook, you’ll learn how to brew a Sorcerer’s Beef Stew, while Friends: The Official Cookbook breaks down how to make Monica’s Onion Galette. Pixar: The Official Cookbook includes tips on creating Toy Story 3’s Jelly Bean Burger, and The Unofficial Simpsons Cookbook reveals the secrets of the Flaming Moe (or as fans will surely know it, the Flaming Homer).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can find recipe books for Godzilla, Ghostbusters, Titanic, Alien, Back to the Future, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, Jurassic World, The Godfather, The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz, Home Alone, The Princess Bride, The Big Lebowski, Seinfeld, Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Peaky Blinders, Bridgerton, The Office, Ted Lasso, Mad Men, Happy Days, Parks & Recreation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bob’s Burgers, Gilmore Girls, Adventure Time, Naruto, Lilo & Stitch, Rick and Morty, Pokémon, Minecraft, Street Fighter, Stardew Valley, Assassin’s Creed, Animal Crossing, Halo, The Sims, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and many, many more.

The biggest of these books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, retail bookstores often dedicate entire displays to them, and the appetite for the genre has grown so large that Monroe-Cassel has written a second Game of Thrones cookbook due to release in May. Some are officially licensed, meaning that they carry all the branding, artwork, and high production value that their properties afford. Others are humbly titled “unofficial,” inching tentatively up to the line of copyright infringement. Many are hefty, hardback tomes created with immense detail and genuine love for their source material. And then there are the less convincing releases, stamped with the name of a popular franchise to warrant a glossy cover and high retail price.

All, essentially, are merchandise, designed to entice enthusiasts of whatever pop-culture license they’re tied to. Usually, that’s a franchise of some kind—one that commands a loyal audience and for which a branded recipe book doesn’t look out of place next to shelves of T-shirts, plushies, hoodies, action figures, coffee-table books, board games, and everything else publishers release to the baying delight of eager fans. But the best of them are extensions of the worlds on which they’re based, letting readers engage with their favourite fiction in a new way by getting a little physically closer to it.

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“It’s just a whole other way to cosplay,” says Elena Craig, a recipe developer who’s written cookbooks for the worlds of Harry Potter, Deadpool, and Hocus Pocus. They allow readers to bring their favourite fictional world to life, she thinks, and enlarge it to the point at which they can partake in it themselves. For Tomb Raider superfan and fan-site owner Michelle Harris, Tomb Raider: The Official Cookbook and Travel Guide does more than just handily collect recipes from hero Lara Croft’s travels—it deepens her connection to the character’s journey. “You get to taste the food the locals would eat,” Harris says, “and by doing this, it gives you a little more insight into the areas Lara travels.”

Fantasy and science fiction stories are natural candidates for the model. They’re rife with imaginary foods to playfully re-create, and their expansive world-building often gestures toward the cuisines of their fictional peoples. “If the cookbook is for a TV show or movie, I rewatch it over and over again looking for food references,” says Jenn Fujikawa, a food writer who’s authored Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Avengers cookbooks. “I really study the shows to build a proper backstory so that the recipe makes sense in-world.”

Monroe-Cassel says the trick to re-creating fictional foods often lies in finding real-world ingredients that can convincingly pose as imaginary alternatives—which may sound rather straightforward until you’re staring down the culinary canon of World of Warcraft and have to whip up dishes with names like Chimaerok Chops. With foods as made-up as these, where do you even begin?

“So a rok is a bird, and a chimaera is a lion-eagle-goat thing,” says Monroe-Cassel. “I can work with goat, but I can’t find goat.” Anything else, then? “Let’s do lamb!” The result is a lamb-shoulder chop marinated in a nutmeg-and-Aleppo-pepper-flake rub, served with couscous or rice. Not bad for a dish that appears in the video game as only a small, vaguely food-shaped clump of brown pixels.

This is, of course, half the appeal. Not only do these foods offer new sensory gateways into fictional worlds, but when they’re cooked, you get to eat them. “I want my cookbooks to be fun to use at home for watch parties, so I like to make sure the food isn’t too daunting that people wouldn’t even want to try to make it,” says Fujikawa.

The more children-oriented cookbooks often contain novelty dishes, like the Dobby-shaped cupcakes of the The Official Harry Potter Baking Book, or the Splash Zone cocktail of Jurassic World: The Official Cookbook that arranges marshmallows around the rim of a glass to (sort of) look like the toothed mouth of a dinosaur. “You want to make sure everyone feels included, especially in comics,” says Michelin-star chef Paul Eschbach, who created the recipes of the upcoming Marvel: Spider-Man: The Official Cookbook. “We’re not making up a cookbook for Noma here. What is Peter Parker going to eat?”

It’s exactly the sort of question we’ve been asking of our favourite characters for decades. Pop-culture cookbooks may be enjoying a newfound popularity, but the genre is hardly new. Cult soap opera Dark Shadows received a cookbook tie-in back in 1970, and Marvel put out a collection of superhero-inspired recipes a few years later. Trekkies got their first recipe book in 1999, and The Sopranos Family Cookbook followed in 2002.

These early titles, though, were few and far between, and it wasn’t until the 2012 publication of Monroe-Cassel’s first Game of Thrones cookbook that the genre took off in earnest. She and a friend had started a blog the year before to showcase their take on foods from the beloved book series; then they sent a tongue-in-cheek email to author George R.R. Martin suggesting they team up for an official collection. “Not only did he write back,” Monroe-Cassel says, but he told his publishers to get on it. “Turns out that whatever George Martin wants, George Martin gets.”

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It helped that the Game of Thrones TV adaptation had just started airing, enthusing a fresh audience to the lore of Westeros and creating a new batch of fans to lap up merch of the hottest prestige television show of the moment. At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was inching toward its eventual domination of the Hollywood box office. Suddenly, sweeping imaginary worlds became the commercial tentpoles of pop culture. Understanding their expansive lore was no longer lazily seen as the purview of geeks, nerds, and other unpleasant stereotypes but instead practically necessary if you wanted to keep up with the latest watercooler chat in the office.

“Everyone can be geeky these days, and it’s not frowned upon,” says Nicolle Lamerichs, lecturer in creative business at University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, who specialises in studying fandom and media. “That even your average uncle is watching these shows and is super invested in them helps to see how fans are part of the mainstream.”

Bertha Chin, lecturer in social media and communication at Swinburne University of Technology and coeditor of Eating Fandom: Intersections Between Fans and Food Cultures, remembers when fandom was chiefly expressed and enjoyed at comic cons, clubs, and other underground events. Fans would meet up for a weekend to enjoy their shared interests before returning to their normal lives come Monday morning. “Now everywhere you turn on Twitter or TikTok, people are just sharing their fandom,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with social media making everything more accessible.”

With like-minded people just a few clicks away, it’s easier than ever to find a community that shares an interest in whatever characters, worlds, or creators you love. And with potentially thousands of other Internet users always ready to chat, speculate, argue, and share memes online—anonymously or otherwise—you need never stop. A burgeoning interest can quickly become a hobby, and it doesn’t take that much screen time for a hobby to become an obsession.

It’s music to the ears of publishers looking for an easy payday. To some degree, fans are the perfect consumers: They’re loyal, dedicated, and have at least some level of preexisting interest in branded products. Pitch a product right and you’ll open the door to a ready-made audience. Or try an outlandish idea like, say, a tie-in cookbook and you’ve got a good chance of finding a gap that fans have been waiting to fill.

As a big Star Trek fan, for instance, Lamerichs owns various bits of merch, including things like fictional travel guides to the planet Vulcan and other locations in the show. “But the nice thing with a cookbook is that in a way it’s interactive,” she says. “It’s about re-creating these dishes and fantasising about these dishes. It’s about thinking, If this had existed for real, how would we go about creating it? There is more creativity to it than wearing a T-shirt.”

Yet there’s also something undeniably peculiar about it all. It’s a strange, almost amusing exercise to reduce the world’s most commercially and critically beloved franchises to items that can fit on a kitchen shelf. It’s not only that these blockbuster worlds seem too big for the pages of a recipe book but that recipe books themselves sit in an altogether different domain. They belong to the mainstream.

Pop-culture cookbooks, then, seem to straddle the divide, extending fandom to the very consumers who are typically thought of as outside it. Or to put it another way, while you probably won’t catch many Downton Abbey fans walking around in graphic tees or adding to their Funko Pop collections, a great deal of them will be exactly the sort of people to enjoy a good recipe collection.

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For food historian Annie Gray, there’s more to it than just business savvy. When she was asked to create the official cookbook of Downton Abbey, she was most interested in how the format could be a useful vehicle. She remembers thinking, “I can use this to put across the actual history of the period tied into a series that people really love. This is a really good opportunity to get real history in front of an audience of people who are already receptive.”

Much like the television shows on which they’re based, the recipes in Gray’s Official Downton Abbey Cookbook and Call the Midwife: The Official Cookbook are inspired by the ingredients and tastes of their eras but tweaked to be more palatable for a modern audience. Every recipe is introduced by an explanation of its origins and development, and sections are interspersed with short essays discussing the trends, industries, and forces that influenced English cooking of the time.

It’s a far cry from some of the other pop-culture cookbooks Gray remembers reading in preparation. Many, she says, made basic historical errors, while an unofficial Downton Abbey cookbook seemed to think the fictional stately home was somehow connected to England’s monastic “abbeys” dissolved in the Reformation of the 16th century.

Errors that egregious are thankfully rare, but it’s still not too hard to spot the cash grabs of the genre. Cast your eye across a random selection of pop-culture cookbooks and you’ll quickly see brands so devoid of culinary material, or so infertile for expansion, that slapping their name on a recipe book seems little more than cynical.

Will fans of 16-bit video games really get much from Sonic the Hedgehog: The Official Cookbook? Will Fast & Furious: The Official Cookbook have anything to teach a burgeoning gourmand? And does Catan, a nearly 30-year-old board game that includes no mention of food other than the odd picture of a bushel of wheat, have much to offer a home cook? For obsessives, maybe. For those looking for an easy birthday gift for an obsessive, probably. And for publishers, certainly.

“These books have been really selling well and getting really great placement,” says Casie Vogel, vice president and publisher at Ulysses Press, who published Catan: The Official Cookbook last year. Picking recipes for that book, she says, involved choosing foods that could tie into the game through wordplay or could be shared by a group of friends during a board-game night. But selecting the license for a cookbook is more business minded.

“It’s a lot of discussion about who do we think the audience is for these shows, movies, or whatever the pop-culture tie-in is,” Vogel says, “and going from there to see if those are people that we think are book buyers who kind of get this stan-fan culture.”

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Brenna Connor, manager of U.S. books-industry insights at the market-research firm Circana, says that such licensing is now an important part of the book market at large. In the U.S. between 2013 and 2023, the number of published licensed books more than doubled, and while cookbook sales are down from their pandemic peak, licensed cookbooks of all varieties represent one pocket of growth. Many are tied not to pop-culture brands but to individuals who’ve made a name for themselves on TikTok, YouTube, and other social media platforms, including B. Dylan Hollis, Joshua Weissman, Nick DiGiovanni, Barbara Costello, and Joanne Lee Molinaro.

These authors are effectively the modern incarnations of the TV chef. “On average in 2023, cookbook sales for these TikTok stars outperformed the top 100 cookbooks by 600 percent,” says Connor. In fact, looking at licensed books across all adult categories, the licensed cookbook is the top area of growth, with sales reaching 2.2 million books in 2023. “The titles driving the most growth are coming from licenses with strong brand loyalty, like Disney Parks, Yellowstone, Dungeons & Dragons, Minecraft, and Hocus Pocus,” says Connor.

It’s a trend the publishing industry has fully embraced. Consider the case of UK imprint Expanse, which was set up by mega-publisher HarperCollins to specifically focus on the biggest properties across gaming, TV, and film. Its mantra is “books for fans, by fans”—a motto that couldn’t better summarise the way publishers are betting on the ever-growing appetite of fandoms. Says Expanse publishing director John Packard, “I think there is a lot of nostalgia for these brands, either for something you played or watched as a kid or spent hundreds of hours of your life immersed in. People want to carry on that experience and continue engaging with that world, and cookbooks are one fun way of doing that.”

It’s not like their creators are going to run out of material anytime soon. “We’ve got other offshoots of it, whether it’s baking, cocktails, or entertaining,” says Vanessa Lopez, who oversees licensing and partnerships at publisher Insight Editions. “And there’s always new media being created that gives us opportunity for this sort of publishing.”

Are we set, then, to wade through ever more of these novelty recipe collections, created with varying degrees of quality and love yet published ultimately for the reliable financial return promised by the brands and characters and worlds to which we’ve grown loyally attached? Yes, probably. But is that so bad?

When writer and comic historian Jermaine McLaughlin was approached to pen the words of Marvel: Spider-Man: The Official Cookbook, the whole project seemed a bit of a head-scratcher. But after going through the process and seeing the final collection of recipes —taken from across the five boroughs of New York as seen through Spider-Man’s mask—he understands the appeal. “There’s something pretty fun about being able to marry people’s culinary interest—even if it’s, like mine, a surface-level interest—with these characters,” he says. “It makes the read a bit more fun, and it may help people discover recipes that they may not have even known they were interested in.”

The best fiction has always challenged conventional taste. Now it’s just doing that in more ways than one.

Originally published on Esquire US

Four days before I’m supposed to travel to Portland, Oregon to meet Chuck Palahniuk, we’re already plotting a murder. Multiple murders, actually. Palahniuk is texting me from a Columbia High School reunion in Burbank, Washington, from which he graduated in 1980 (it wasn’t technically his reunion but his older sister’s), and among his fellow Coyotes are the bullies who chanted mean shit at him and beat him bloody.

“Several will die today,” one text reads. This was a conversation that began nine texts earlier with me saying hello, it’s the writer from Esquire, wanted to touch baseetc., and now, it’s somehow progressed to killing his childhood tormentors. Soon, Palahniuk discovers that “several are dead. I feel cheated.” His solution is, of course, obvious: “Must find and piss on their graves.”

To someone like me, who used to read his work as a twenty-something, this feels quintessentially Palahniukian: darkly funny, shamelessly macabre, and—most crucially—completely straight-faced. In Palahniuk’s fiction, twisted violence and sex occur in a matter-of-fact manner. His infamous short story “Guts,” which used to induce fainting in audience members when Palahniuk read it at events, is a vivid cautionary tale about a teenage boy sitting naked on a pool circulation pump as a means of sexual pleasure, which results in his colon being sucked out of his anus.

In Beautiful You, a woman finds herself in a 50 Shades of Grey-type relationship with a megabillionaire who plans to release a line of sex toys for women and uses the protagonist as an experimental subject. In one scene, he has her insert colour-coded beads into her vagina (pink) and anus (black) while they dine at a restaurant. The “orgasmic waves” she experiences are too intense, so she runs to the bathroom to pull them out, only she can’t—the beads are magnetised. As her “secretions dripped to the floor, where they’d begun to pool,” another woman has to help her by sucking out the pink bead, like “snake’s venom.”

By the time this text exchange is happening, I’ve spent the better part of a month becoming a Palahniuk completist: miring myself in his menacing diegeses, rife with rape, murder, torture, self-mutilation, suicide, and all manner of gruesome body horror. His latest, Not Forever, But For Now (releasing in early September), is a tour de force of literary debauchery, featuring some truly nasty stuff. Helping him plan the murder of his high school bullies, then, doesn’t seem strange at all. As I texted him then: “I would expect nothing less.”

LEAH NASH

Less than a week later, I’m in Portland, Oregon, I’m in the passenger seat of Palahniuk’s Prius, and I realise I have no idea where we’re going. I deferred to Palahniuk about where we would conduct the interview, and I neglect to ask as we navigate the city Palahniuk adopted as his own six days after graduating high school in 1980, the place teeming, as he wrote in Fugitives and Refugees, with “the most cracked of the crackpots.”

Chuck Palahniuk has a more significant literary oeuvre than he’s often given credit for, likely because of an unfair association with toxic masculinity, misogyny, and various other social ills typified by Tyler Durden, the impossibly intoxicating antihero at the centre of Palahniuk’s breakthrough debut novel Fight Club. It’s true that the majority of his fans are young men, the kind whose dorm room walls are festooned with movie posters featuring, say, Al Pacino, Uma Thurman, and a scowling Brad Pitt clutching a bar of soap, but attempts to link Palahniuk to the recent ascent of men’s rights activists fall apart upon closer examination of the novels.

It’s also true that many of his characters possess similar traits, espouse similarly nihilistic or anarchistic philosophies, and behave in similar ways as these misogynist trolls, but this only means that Palahniuk identified the disastrous consequences of enforced masculinity more accurately and earlier than everyone else. To be completely honest, I originally came to Portland to argue in favour of the Palahniuk-to-incel pipeline, but once I was disabused of that premise–first by reading the novels; then by speaking with Palahniuk–I discover something completely unexpected.

What becomes clear to me during the eight and a half hours I spend with Palahniuk is that he cares about his characters—about their happiness—much more than I would have assumed, and that his primary objective as a storyteller is the emotional climax a reader can be brought to. The murder? The mayhem? The soap? These are merely his tools, but what he builds with those tools in no way reflects its construction.

Palahniuk is much more subdued in his manner than I expected. He speaks quietly, softly, with a gentleness I associate with patient teachers. His voice and demeanour contain zero trace of menace or even naughtiness. He’s dressed in an understated way, but his clothes fit impeccably, and the interior of his car is as neat as straight bourbon. I can’t envision this Palahniuk pissing on the graves of dead bullies.

At half past noon, we pull into a mostly empty parking lot for what looks like a park. Enormous fir trees are clamouring to be the first to reach the cloudless sky. Urban noise vanishes, replaced by the usual ambience of nature and that human hum we can’t fully eliminate in the “natural” spaces we design and build onto. It’s gorgeous and eerie.

“I’m taking you here to kill you,” Palahniuk says, smiling. This is said without even a joking malice, but instead like an endearment.

LEAH NASH

The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother wouldn’t be a bad place to go, honestly. Known locally as the Grotto, it’s 25 hectares of towering conifers centred around a ten-storey cliff-face out of which a small cavern has been created by dynamite to serve as a Roman Catholic altar, which is festooned with statues, candles, and flowers. More than a dozen rows of pews extend out from the Grotto Cave for the services that regularly occur there.

At the end of the plaza, another formidable precipice looms over us, although this one’s manmade: the Chapel of Mary’s façade is tall and flat and wide, mirroring the grandeur of the nearby cliff. A path beyond the chapel, guarded by a comically ineffectual turnstile, leads to an elevator that takes you to the upper gardens and the meditation chapel and vistas of the city, which is, Palahniuk informs me, our destination. Though it’s midday on a bright and warm July Wednesday, the atmosphere is understandably solemn.

When we approach the Chapel of Mary and peer in to glimpse its mural and marble and mosaic-filled interior, I mention that I’m going to snap some photos because my visual memory is so terrible. Very politely, Palahniuk motions for me to be silent, nodding to the handful of attendees inside. He watches them with genuine affection, or at the very least deferential respect. I watch him instead.

Palahniuk is 61. He’s fit, healthy, and stylish in a way one wouldn’t necessarily associate with someone in their seventh decade, but his manner of moving about in the world—patient, deliberate, wholly aware of and attentive to the other people around him—strikes me as something acquired with age. The one other time I saw Palahniuk in real life was in Boston in 2007, when he packed the Coolidge Corner Theatre promoting his novel Rant. I didn’t speak to him that day, only sat in the audience, but he seemed, at 45, to lack some of those qualities.

He thrived on that stage, the crowd orchestral to his conductor’s sway. Fans arrived, per Palahniuk’s instruction, decked out in wedding gowns and tuxes, a nod to a demolition derby-style sport called Party Crashing in Rant. It was a raucous affair, as many of Palahniuk’s events are, replete with contests, trivia, beach balls, inflatable animals, and one of the liveliest crowds I’ve ever been a part of. And Palahniuk ate it up, with an almost arrogant ease. My recollection isn’t pristine—it was sixteen years ago, after all—but the Palahniuk standing in front of me, wistfully gazing at a very different group of devotees who worship a very different leader, operates with a humble wisdom. The Grotto, these places of contemplation and reflection, suit him.

Still, it feels like a weird place to discuss a novel about two wealthy brothers who spend their time fucking each other and murdering the staff of their mansion.

Not Forever, But For Now is Palahniuk’s twentieth novel and twenty-sixth book. He’s been a part of the American literary scene for three decades and has produced some of our most fascinating fiction. When Fight Club was published in 1996, Palahniuk emerged as part of a generation of young, transgressive writers—including David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Bret Easton Ellis, A.M. Homes, Elizabeth Hurtzel, Douglas Coupland, and Irvine Welsh—whose books depicted drug addicts, paedophiles, murderers, and the sexually promiscuous with unapologetic directness.

David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Palahniuk’s first novel catapulted him to genuine fame, allowing him to become a writer full-time after years spent working odd jobs like a mechanic or a technical writer—something for which he still expresses gratitude. The novels that followed Fight Club took on subjects from the edges of society: cultists, pornographers, drag queens, political extremists, and child soldiers. Not surprisingly, his books have proven controversial.

His 2001 novel Choke was challenged at a high school in Arkansas for “promoting homosexuality.” Hasan Basri Çıplak, the head of Ayrıntı Publishing House, and Funda Uncu, a translator, were charged with distributing obscenity and taken to court by the Turkish government for publishing Palahniuk’s 2008 novel Snuff. The trial, however, was postponed indefinitely, and the publisher was warned not to release any more obscene works in the meantime.

Most recently, Palahniuk’s story collection Make Something Up made it all the way to number eight on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016 because, according to the ALA’s website summary of the complaints, it was deemed “disgusting and all around offensive.”

Palahniuk’s writing has pissed people off the world over, but even after all that, he hasn’t been cowed in his mission to transgress and to shock. Not Forever, But For Now is among his most disturbing novels, as it contains numerous gruesome and repugnant moments, and it features characters who make Tyler Durden look like Harvey the rabbit.

The brothers at the novel’s centre are Otto and Cecil, two ambiguously aged nepo babies living a lavish life in a manor in Wales. When we first meet them, they’re watching a nature documentary about Australia, from which they glean a wholly Palahniukian lesson: a newborn joey has to crawl up its mother’s fur to reach her pouch, unassisted, and “the squirmy, pink thing must rescue itself.”

Otto, the more dominant of the pair, explains to Cecil, the narrator, that sometimes a mother kangaroo will flick away one of her offspring “like a lump of nasty snot off her fingers.” She does this, Otto says, “because she hates its puny weakness,” and because “a mummy can always tell when a joey isn’t like the other joeys, why, it’s always going to be a stunted pre-male.”

As Otto and Cecil’s privileged world of affluence is unveiling, a couple of odd and discomfiting phrases appear. The brothers refer to a game called “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which turns out to be a euphemism for sexual dominance (“Will you be my daddy and chase me through the Hundred Acre Wood?”), and they use phrases like “having a go” and “having it off.” These are also sexual euphemisms, obviously, but these terms are so disturbing because they appear in reference to the brothers. As in, “We get back in the car and Otto has a go with me,” and, “Otto pushes me down on the cushions and has it off.” These brothers fuck each other… a lot. They are constantly engaged in some kind of sexual activity, so much so that there’s a recurring joke about the stench of their nursery.

Their sexual deviancy extends beyond each other, as well. In one scene, Cecil demands the nanny “bathe me front and back,” which she initially refuses to do, because, she says, he’s too old and has “all that hair down there.” Cecil insists, threatening her job. While it never explicitly states that what they’re arguing over is her pleasuring him, there’s a moment when Cecil mentions that they “once had a nanny who did it with her mouth.”

When they’re not doing all of that stuff, Otto and Cecil occupy their days by writing sexually charged letters to prison inmates in the hope that, once released, the convicts will come to their manor in search of some Winnie-the-Pooh, at which point the brothers will kill them.

They belong to a family of murderers with Bond villain-level ambitions for global control. Their grandfather hopes to mentor Otto into a successful member of their organisation. He occasionally shows up to reprimand the boys for their horrid, unmanly lifestyles and to regale them with tales of his exploits. They are not ordinary contract killers, but rather forces of empire power.

They orchestrate what they consider to be necessary events for the betterment of humanity. Otto and Cecil’s family is responsible for, among other major tragedies, 9/11, Kent State, and Jonestown, as well as the deaths of Princess Di, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Phil Hartman, and Sonny Bono. This devious cabal represents “great powers” who control the fate of history, and their reasons for setting these events into motion are the same as all imperial regimes: the expansion and perpetuation of power.

Two significant historical moments—that the Grandfather claims are related—receive special attention in the novel, through a lengthy flashback that’s parsed out in small chunks throughout, partly because the scene succinctly lays out the modus operandi of the organization’s history-forging, but also because it contains what I now know is a deeply personal expression of Palahniuk’s arduous life. The two events are the death of Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots.

After an elevator to the upper level, Palahniuk and I briefly take in the view of Portland from the Meditation Chapel, with its wall of windows, before finding a bench in the Peace Gardens, where Palahniuk elucidates his passion for what he calls “apostolic fiction,” where a narrator details the thoughts and exploits of a person they love, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Palahniuk says, “When you're writing about a character who really admires and loves another character, it’s such a joy. Because so often with my generation, it’s just narratives of snark, where it's just always about people tearing down things. But to have a character writing about the thing that they love—that is absolutely breathtaking. To be with someone who is intelligently praising, and in that Boswell way, saying, I know this great guy, I want to record everything this great guy says, I want you to love the thing I love. Yeah. That is a joy to write.”

Palahniuk is referring to Fight Club, his first and best-known novel. The unnamed narrator so idolises Tyler Durden because Durden was designed by the narrator himself to be an ideal, a psychological manifestation of everything he wished he would be. This is why Tyler has proven so perniciously stubborn as a hero of alienated young men. You love Tyler because the narrator loves Tyler, and in the film, every detail of Brad Pitt’s physique, style, and attitude were meticulously calibrated to make you admire him.

Palahniuk also claims credit (convincingly, I think) for popularising the pejorative word snowflake, though ironically, his initial use of the term (”you are not special, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake” in Fight Club) was meant as a debunking of the treatment his generation received from public education, this “all encouraging all the time” celebration of everyone’s individuality as equally special. This technique, in Palahniuk’s view, left him and many of his cohort ill-prepared for adulthood. But what right-wingers and boomers mean by snowflake is weakness: an unwillingness to confront dissent, an intolerance to disagreement, an expectation of privilege. Basically some trigger-warning safe-space wokeness bullshit.

To put it another way: Palahniuk targeted the parents who raised their kids to believe in such universal uniqueness, whereas now those same parents seem to take aim at anyone foolish enough to believe them. This, to me, succinctly articulates the gap between Palahniuk’s nuanced satire and the surface-level interpretations of a certain contingent of angry, reactionary men who feel cheated out of something they assume was promised to them.

LEAH NASH

For his part, Palahniuk laughs when I bring up Fight Club’s connection to incels. What interested him was what would happen if men had their own version of the Joy Luck Club or the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—and to him, the fact that it would be violent wasn’t even a question. “I just wanted to create this arbitrary club,” he says, because what really mattered was the escalation. “Fight Club has to become Project Mayhem. It has to become this thing that’s beyond our control, a thing you can’t reel back in.”

Not Forever, But For Now is also apostolic fiction. Cecil adores Otto; he’s always telling us how clever Otto is, how wise. Cecil, though, is quite aware of Otto’s evil. In fact, Cecil’s narration deliberately withholds information about Otto from the reader because, as he explains, “I’d rather you embrace Otto as a winning boy.” He’s so protective of his abusive brother that he cares more about creating a positive illusion than revealing the negative truth.

Palahniuk chose the word “apostolic” as his name for this narrative form, even though when he defines the term in conversation, he invokes love and admiration. Apostolic, though, refers to religious discipleship—not merely love but worship, proselytisation, and devotion. Apostles spread the gospels as missionaries and crusaders. An apostle is stauncher than a lover, and much less prone to doubt and nuance. Love—healthy love, at least—seeks to view its object in all its complexity, flaws and all.

Otto wants Cecil to organise his existence around his needs. “Sometimes,” Cecil tells us, late at night, “Otto stands over my bed” and warns him that, “If I held any suspicion you’d leave me, I’d put a stop to you in an instant.” Cecil is completely under Otto’s spell, a fact Palahniuk emphasises with a tactic he has used since the beginning of his literary career. “I did the Fight Club trick,” he says, “where the narrator—his quotes are never inside quotation marks. It’s always paraphrased.”

Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of communicating character, so its absence keeps someone’s true self at bay. The result is that the reader never hears the narrator when he interacts with others, giving him little definition as a character, even on the page. Cecil’s liberation, then, is tied to Otto’s destruction. Cecil can only thrive when the one he loves dies.

It’s easy to dismiss Palahniuk’s fiction as provocation for provocation’s sake, as an indulgence in decadence and debauchery, providing as much visceral pleasure (but as little artistic quality) as gritty horror movies and bloody video games. It wouldn’t be hard—I know, I’ve done it—to dismiss his novels as moody stopovers between young adult fiction and adult literature, like a reader’s goth phase. His work is dark, disturbing, and unsparingly satirical, and it’s filled with an eclectic array of information.

When Palahniuk attended college at the University of Oregon, he studied journalism, which is apparent in his novels. One of his trademarks is providing fascinating facts about niche, underground subjects. How to make bombs. The logistics of pornography. The effects of drugs. The means by which Hollywood foley artists create sounds. Palahniuk lends his stories a conspiratorial verisimilitude with these brief lessons, as if nudging you and letting you in on a little-known secret.

Moreover, the novels lob savagely satirical bon mots at their targets, many of which are represented by the characters. This can lead to flimsy, stand-in cyphers who function as tools of the novelist’s subtextual aims rather than full-fledged individuals with convincing agency. Palahniuk’s characters, as he ages, have become more and more human, and their growth more central to the arc.

His previous novel, The Invention of Sound, features two protagonists mired in a wild narrative involving missing children, recorded murders, and Hollywood corruption; the finale is a scene of harrowing violence between these two characters. A contextless description of this ending would not do it justice, as what’s happening underneath the violence is an incredibly moving and meaningful conclusion to both characters’ stories. The pieces are disturbing, but the whole is heartbreaking. As a novelist, pathos is now Palahniuk’s primary intent.

I ask him if he thinks readers or critics recognise the emotional component of his novels.

“I don’t think 99% of them do,” he says, “And it’s painful. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go there.”

There is the true depths of a character’s catharsis, a confrontation with their deep, troubled selves. One scene in Not Forever, But For Now involves Otto and Cecil hunting around for “shy, blushing, effete types we can coerce into giving a ride.” They find a guileless boy named Digby, who despite Otto’s unambiguous remarks remains unaware of their intentions. When Cecil spots him, he assesses his appearance:

The lad looks to be so alone that he’ll do human toilet and tell himself this was love, why, he’ll do anything we ask just so long as he’s not ignored and left to stand there alone. He’s a baby animal so unwanted he’ll do rusty trombone and risk his life—risk catching hepatitis and AIDS—to ward off another moment of being some pre-male nobody set under a bus-stop light in the middle of cold nowhere.

When Palahniuk talks about this moment, I sense a real note of resignation in his voice. “That Digby scene is the most human scene I’ve ever written,” he says. “But nobody will appreciate that. Nobody will appreciate the pathos of that scene, because they’ll fix on the sort of dirtiness of it.”

He’s hurt. It hurts him that people rarely grasp the emotional punch of his writing, that they aren’t more moved by the grounded feelings and earned catharses of his characters. Readers don’t see how much his own personal anguish and history informs his fiction. But they can’t. They aren’t privy to enough of Palahniuk’s life to make the connections. They’re understandably distracted by the heightened plots and grotesque imagery and lurid themes. The emotions are there, certainly, but sometimes the visceral intensity overpowers the soulful underpinnings.

In an essay in Stranger Than Fiction, Palahniuk writes that Fight Club is “less a novel than an anthology of my friends’ lives. I do have insomnia and wander with no sleep for weeks. Angry waiters I know mess with food. They shave their heads. My friend Alice makes soap. My friend Mike cuts single frames of smut into family features.” 

Lullaby was composed in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, but it would be impossible to discern this from the novel’s plot. In 1999, Palahniuk’s father was murdered, along with a woman he was seeing, by the woman’s ex-boyfriend. During the killer’s trial, Palahniuk struggled over whether they should seek the death penalty, ultimately writing a letter recommending a death sentence. Lullaby is about a culling song that ends the life of anyone who hears it; words that kill.

Palahniuk crafts his art with such personal investment and hard-won wisdom. He immortalises his friends and navigates his grief, incorporating private pain and experience. And like many artists, he struggles to accept a fundamental disparity in presenting work: that what the art the world sees speaks only to a fraction of the struggle required to complete it, meaning they necessarily underestimate its ingenuity and emotional complexity.

But Not Forever, But For Now contains some of Palahniuk’s most personal expressions of himself, which brings us back to Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots.

For the past 30 years—since before he’d ever published anything—Palahniuk has been with his husband Mike. They live on a large property outside of Portland, where they’ve lived for the better part of two decades. Palahniuk is protective of Mike and doesn’t like him being written about all that much, so I only want to characterise Mike the way Palahniuk does, as I did not meet or speak with Mike.

Mike mostly doesn’t read Palahniuk’s books (although he did read and was moved by Lullaby), but he acts as Palahniuk’s sounding board for ideas. “Mike is really smart in terms of cultural precedent,” Palahniuk says, “and he can say, ‘No, that’s too much like this thing a million years ago.’ Because God forbid you get forty pages into something and realise, oh, that was a Simpsons episode.” But if Palahniuk can get Mike to smile, “that little smile like, you bastard, don’t do that,” or, even better, if he can get him to laugh, “that’s the ultimate green light.”

The nefarious firm of murderers in Not Forever, But For Now must kill Judy Garland, the Grandfather explains to her on June 22, 1969, so that the Stonewall Riots will take place. This is a regularly recurring (and most certainly apocryphal) story about Stonewall. The idea is that the funeral of gay icon Judy Garland, which took place the same night as the riots, set a gloomy mood to the evening and thus contributed to or perhaps even caused the events that unfolded.

It probably originated with Charles Kaiser’s 1997 book The Gay Metropolis, but historians don’t grant the theory much credence. In her book The Gay Revolution, Lillian Faderman spends four pages considering, via interviewees, the numerous factors that contributed to the events, and Garland isn’t mentioned at all.

But Palahniuk is using this myth more in the sense that Christopher Bram invokes in his book on gay writers, Eminent Outlaws: “People want to connect the death of Garland with the riots, but no mourners appear to have been present at Stonewall. The juxtaposition is only a symbolic coincidence (yet it’s hard to say exactly what it symbolises).” Others, like activist Bob Kohler, who was present at Stonewall, totally objected to the notion, “because it trivialises the whole thing.”

But it’s more than that. The Grandfather tells Judy Garland why on earth the powers that be would want something like the Stonewall riots to occur, and it goes something like this: “the population explosion was planned” by this ruling cabal because they “needed more humans to constantly vacuum clean the environment.”

These expendable hordes will “act as traps to collect and store really harmful germs and viruses such as HIV and hepatitis, thus making those bugs less of a threat to better humans.” But “a slave class,” as Grandfather refers to them, must be controlled so that they don’t take over. Lucky for Grandfather’s firm, “a really ripping science-based solution presented itself.” That is, “the mid-century explosion of styrene and isoprene and vinyl chloride” from the plastics industry caused a birthrate spike of “fey, feeble, polyurethan-defected things.”

Gay men is what he means, though he never refers to them that way. Instead it's “PCB-poisoned pre-males” or “this plastics-infused population of eunuchs.” If a growing community of excluded and ostracised people were to discover the truth—that not only have carcinogenic compounds produced “deviant, plastics-inspired impulses,” but that these impulses will deny them “traditional means of advancement,” so that they will “accrue wealth with no offspring”—they might understandably revolt, but they would most certainly sue. At first, Grandfather’s firm decided to employ shame to keep these “wispy, lispy” “bred-to die drones” from acknowledging their sexuality, let alone investigating its possible causes. This worked for a while, but a better solution was needed.

Hence Stonewall. Stonewall and the birth of the gay rights movement would shift the narrative “from shame to pride.” Now, these “tight-pants pre-males” will “embrace their engineered disabilities as badges of honour,” which will, according to Grandfather, result in the same unwillingness to find a cause, or even to consider the idea that their sexuality has a cause, thereby keeping them from discovering the truth and bringing down the global economy.

These are all, from Judy Garland on down, offensive ways to depict gay men and the legacy of Stonewall. Not that it’s any more objectionable than a lot of the stuff in Palahniuk’s fiction, but this relates to an aspect of his life he isn’t very public about, so I was curious what he had to say about this part of the novel.

“God, it’s going to be tough to articulate this,” he says. “Being same-sex-attracted in the tiny town I grew up in was really a dangerous thing. And when I came out to my mother, she said, ‘Don’t tell anybody. Don’t tell anybody, please. They will kill you.’ And I never came out to my father. Then he was murdered in ‘99. So that was always a huge incomplete thing.”

“How old were you when you came out to your mother?” I ask.

“I was sixteen,” he says. He repeats: “And she said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, because they will kill you.’ They will kill you. Because when she was a teenager, somebody in the town was suspected of being homosexual, and his house was burned down, and he was driven out of town. It was such a horrible ordeal that she was terrified it would happen to me.

“And then I age into this culture,” he continues, “where if you aren’t completely out in every aspect of your public life and personal life, then you’re somehow damaged and shameful and raw. So within my lifetime I’m supposed to transition from being a person that has really created this whole guardedness not just for my own protection, but for the protection of the people I love and for my family who are still in that small town. Then I’m expected to automatically step out of that into a kind of joyous, flag-waving outness that is completely at odds with the entire way I’ve been raised, where that was my shell and my armour. You don’t just give that up. You don’t give that up overnight. And people say if you don’t give that up overnight, then you’re self-hating, all these wrong things. So I’m fucked either way. I’m just trying to be one person and live a life. And I’m sorry: I’m just not ready to be completely out and just put it all out there.”

I anticipated Palahniuk citing the corporate commodification of Pride or the conservative backlash that came with it—but I didn’t expect such a personally anguished reason. Then I remember the bullies from high school that he and I plotted to kill, the ones who chanted “Pal-ah-niuk! Suck my dick!” at him while they assaulted him.

I think too of the narrator of Fight Club in relation to Tyler Durden—the meek, closeted drone versus the uninhibited, flamboyant hero. I think of the disdain Otto and Cecil have for the weak joeys, how the language they use is not theirs but the Grandfather’s, who has taught them to hate themselves. And I recall, too, how Palahniuk’s fictional milieu tends towards loners who resent the legacy they were born into, who seek out deviant pleasure from disreputable sources, who are made to feel guilty for something they didn’t choose.

I see Palahniuk’s anger at all that was withheld from him in his youth that now exists in plentitude. Even though those things no longer mean what they might have to him at sixteen, he’s now expected to be grateful for them. He’s no longer allowed to be afraid.

They will kill you.

Now it’s no surprise at all that Palahniuk cares so deeply for his twisted creations—who else is going to love them? Sure, they’re thieves and con artists and cheats, they’re druggies and sex addicts and adrenaline junkies, and they’re murderers and rapists and villains—but Palahniuk’s novels serve as a haven for them to be their true, deviant selves, because he was never given one himself. These extremist misfits are his life’s work; not the novels, or the over-the-top stories, or the abrasive humour and the controversial satire.

It’s Cecil and Mitzi and Madison and Carl and Pygmy and Tender and Joe’s Raging Bile Duct. In their horrific, transgressive, and misunderstood behaviour, these outcasts act in his stead to embrace a selfhood he wasn’t allowed, arrive at a catharsis he never experienced, or get retribution on enemies he could only joke about. Like any great novelist, Palahniuk adores his darlings; it’s just that his darlings kill.

Originally published on Esquire US

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