Burnt Tongues: Anthology

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The first time I read Burnt Tongues was back in April 2014 – at the time I had only really started dipping my feet into the world of transgressive fiction and I have to admit that I came away from that encounter a little scarred and a little let down, I found the stories shocking for shock sake and that it (in my very British way) wasn’t my cup of tea. But I read the whole thing cover to cover, didn’t skip or skim a story that got too much for me, in a way it was kinda like a sick form of mental abuse – but I love the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Richard Thomas so was in for a penny in for a pound.

And flash forward a good many years since that first encounter with this genre and I’ve consumed a high proportion of it, Burnt Tongues was like that first hit of heroin that seeped into my veins, it had appalled me that I’d sunk that low, but the spark was ignited in me to chase the next hit – and chase it I did.

The Turner Publishing Company have now released this nightmare of an anthology to a whole new host of readers and in doing so given it superstar facelift that Michael Jackson would have be proud of. This facelift includes a brand new cover which is dripping with gorgeousness (understated but fits perfectly with this collection), gone is the huge font of Chuck Palahniuk’s name (which in the first book released by Titan in 2014 was bigger than the actual title of the book) – making Chuck’s name smaller is a great move, yeah Chuck will sell you books, and his introduction The Power of Persisting is a great read, but the actual stars of this anthology are the writers within. You’re are also treated to a note from the editors The Genesis of Burnt Tongues by Dennis Widmyer and Richard Thomas (this was also in the original book). If that wasn’t enough already, each story has a wonderfully crafted piece of artwork to go alongside it… this is not just a rebranding of a book bought by another publisher, this is a whole different beast than the first offering.

Touching briefly on the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk, I have to admit that he is spot on. His introduction talks about these stories growing on the reader, they are stories to come back to and revisit in time when you might be in a different place, a different mood or a different funk. For me, revisiting this book years after reading it and finding many of the stories not to my liking and just damn right offensive – I found that reading them now (many years since I first read them) that many of those offensive, taboo breaking and shocking stories were actually some of the most masterful stories in the collection (what that says about my state of mind now, who knows?). I guess Chuck is right, I’m a different person now than I was in 2014 – I’ve had different life experiences, had many strange things happen to me and have heard of many other strange things happening to other people. I’m now a writer and I’ve read a shitload of books since then, reading in, but mainly out of my comfort zone (discovering some fabulously talented Indie authors along the way). The stories have aged in Burnt Tongues, but they have aged with me, actually I’d say they have actually matured as my tastes have developed and I’ve grown as a reader (a journey that I hope never ends!).
There are twenty stories in this anthology and I’m aiming to give you a whistle stop tour of each one. Many of these names have remained unknown to me since I first read this book, and looking at the biographies and a quick search online (looking for more work by those authors who’s work blew me away) I couldn’t believe that many of them have not released much or anything since this anthology. I was looking for single authored collections, novella’s or novels – and my search turned up empty handed… I still can’t get over how good this collection is on the second pass, and it’s criminal that these writers aren’t more well known. I’m also thrilled that Turner Publishing Company have re-released this as these stories and these writers need more airtime and you need to discover these little atrocities for yourselves!
And with saying that, on with the  short reviews of each story…
Live This Down by Neil Krolicki
This was a fabulous opening story for the anthology, dealing with suicide and in particular a suicide pact with a group of young women all of whom have been driven to this course of action by incredibly disturbing ways and the bloody jacuzzi scene had me laughing and in utter disgust the whole way through. Seeing how lives can fall apart and how easily it is for young people to seek this out as an option of ending things is fabulously grotesque and shockingly on-point, the voice of the narrator in this piece is divine and pulls the reader in to an unforgettable and dark story which also had me chuckling at places I probably shouldn’t have been.
Charlie by Chris Lewis Carter
This is a story that started like it was a strange apocalyptic vision, but we soon realise that its closing time at a rescue centre for animals and someone is desperately trying to get in to have a cat looked at which they found in the street. Our protagonist the shelter worker is reluctant to help, but after a while gives in to the demands of this stranger, and in helping shares a little too much information about his own experiences with his sisters cat. This was a dark and witty tale that was funny and the unraveling of secrets hidden add to the stories impact and tension.
Paper by Gayle Towell
Past trauma, possible abusive relationships and the fourth dimension – it’s a strange story but with a powerful heart beating at its core. The opening of this story was tough to read, as the reader has to witness this abuse take place and we have to accept that this abuse of our protagonist was almost expected and accepted by them, as if they were just a fleshy plaything for the tormentors. It was a hard pill to swallow as to not do this (abuse) would almost be wrong; both emotional and physical abuse rots the insides and pollutes everything that is good, showing in shockingly urgent prose that the scars never truly heal, however perfect the outside of a person may seem.
Mating by Tony Liebhard
A young man studying for midterms finds a phone in the bushes, doing the right thing he takes it home and answers every damn call that comes through, trying to get a message back to the phones owner so he can return the phone. Eventually she makes contact, he entices her to meet and give the phone back. This was an interesting story, the comedy and the voice of the piece was great but it fell a little flat for me, I do remember liking this story on my first reading of the anthology (in 2014) but this time around it felt a little tired.
Melody by Michael De Vito Jr.
This was a stonking story, one which is hidden well until almost the last couple of paragraphs where we get the reveal. The subject matter and the hidden details are handled very well indeed – which when it drops you realise what has been playing out before your very eyes. We have a young man who is infatuated by Melody a cashier at his local shop, his real life infatuation and his dream infatuation blend into a heady mix and he’s not sure what is right and what is wrong – and we are kept in the dark the whole way through.
F For Fake By Tyler Jones
This was an interesting take on doppelgängers, our main protagonist is infatuated with a recluse writer, a writer people know hardly anything about, there is only one photo in current circulation and it looks like our main protagonist. He decides to become this world renowned writer, why not he looks exactly like him – so why not live a life to the fullest, even if it is a lie. An interesting tale that reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Scapegoat’ and Tracy Fahey’s ‘I Look Like You. I Speak Like You. I Walk Like You.’
Mind And Soldier by Phil Jourdan
Plant is a disabled Vietnam vet who is sitting on his porch (Grand Torino style) and dispensing some advice to a young man Raul who has come to him for some help with his love life. But it’s clear that he is suffering from PTSD and there are many secrets that are buried beneath the surface of his fragile existence. There are dark undertones in this story, haunting images, graphic detail of rape and sex and the sordid and it’s very hard to process. But it showcases perfectly the brutality of war making monsters of men, a horrific tale that was difficult to read and very violent, but again was a story that was compelling and brutal reading.
Ingredients by Richard Lemmer
A game where disillusioned female shop workers place items inside their body cavities to win money, with the items returning to the shop floor when finished and the winner walks away with easy money. There is also a social commentary here too about where our food comes from and how it’s sourced; this particular element reminded me of Fight Club and what project mayhem was created to combat. But Lemmer makes this story his own (forgetting the comparisons to Chuck) with an interesting twist and a very readable prose. Ingredients goes where you don’t want it to, but you can’t help but be drawn into the unraveling and compelling narrative – it is by far one of the best stories in the collection. I just loved everything about it, the prose was tight and original, the imagination of the author, and the story is unforgettable – it was gross, macabre and delves into taboo territory and I just found it and Lemmer utterly fascinating, he’s such a rich storyteller and it’s criminal that I can’t find any more work by him, I demand more dammit!
The Line Forms On The Right by Amanda Gowin
A predator spies a girl who’s ripe for the taking, she disappears into a bar where he pursues her with an agenda of lust and barbaric intent. Although a few drinks in the hunter becomes the hunted – a brilliant little story, with a weaving prose that takes the reader on a jolly!
A Vodka Kind of Girl by Matt Egan
We learn about our protagonist Ruby, what she did to get by and her motto – but that was a motto that she’s stuck with right to the very end. We get a glimpse from the narrator about Ruby’s eating disorder, and there are subtle details given to us piece by piece by Egan and these build to a fabulously woven conclusion, a short but interesting piece – and I loved this line ‘You can never be too thin or too rich.’
Gasoline by Fred Venturini
A childhood trauma, and a man living with his disfigurement looks back on his childhood trauma and discovers that the person that caused this, that changed his life has since killed himself in prison, does our protagonist feel closure or not? Venturini takes us back to that fateful day and to a childhood that once was, unearthing secrets that have long since been buried beneath scorched and melted skin. The childhood aspect was brilliantly rendered, the shit talking, the conversations, the adventures and the crazy stuff kinds get up to – we also see the whole nature / nurture debate in glimmering and gritty detail and what truly makes a monster! Another great story.
Dietary by Brandon Tietz
Here we witness body horror at its finest. A very overweight former beauty queen gets the call she’s been dreading; a reunion. So she sets about dieting, to get thinner for the special occasion and she’ll try anything to get thin, whatever the cost to her body, her work, her friends and her life – thinking yourself thin is one thing, but when all else fails there is always something else to try, whatever the cost. This is a gruesome story, one that delves into the inner workings of the body image psyche – showing how an obsession to be what you once were, to be thinner, to be adored can have devastating effects. This was another of my favourite stories in this anthology.
Invisible Graffiti by Adam Skorupskas
The story of how two broken people gravitate towards one another, damaged goods but finding a sense of connection between each other and their broken and mistreated / misused bodies. They cling to life as best they can but sometimes the pull of the grave and the possibilities it offers are all consuming and a lot easier to manage.
Bike by Bryan Howie
A slow burn of a story which has a sledgehammer of a final line. This story shows what great writing is, nothing is spelled out to the reader and it’s left for us to make our own conclusions, devastating conclusions – whether these are right or wrong it’s our decision to make. A familial tale that shows the normality and brutality of life in unflinching detail.
Heavier Petting by Brien Piechos
‘Being the guy who knows the guy who fucked the girl who fucked a dog will ruin your name in the party scene.’ I could imagine Chuck Palahniuk salivating at this offering – in the same vein as his story Guts – this offering from Piechos hits all the gag reflexes. I wanted to hate this story, the taboo it dips its ugly head into is something abhorrent and I didn’t, and never wanted to know about, but I couldn’t help but admire the brilliance of the storytelling, the idea and the mastery on show! This story although horrific is masterfully done and Piechos is a writer that I’m eagerly anticipating greatness from in the future. I ended up loving every sordid detail and I hated him for it.
 
Engines, O-Rings, And Astronauts by Jason M. Fylan
A short story but a powerful one looking at the debate of nature vs nurture and the shit that pollutes the minds of young people; school shooting and bullying are covered in great detail, and we see how a racist ideology can be almost taken in like osmosis to fragile and growing minds – latching on and polluting the young. Engines, O-Rings, And Astronauts shows how a classes vengeance on a young bully can have disastrous effects and long lasting damage – confronting a beast can sometimes turn us into monsters too!
Lemming by Terence James Eeles
An interesting twist on the haunted ghost walk – the prose here is great and you feel part of the action, the pain on those you’re observing, you feel it in their voices. A good story but I’ve seen one recently in Diabolica Britannica which for me was done slightly better than this offering. It’s also strange that I’d not read a story like this before, but then within a month I’ve read two (obviously this was first published in 2014 but you get what I mean) like buses, you wait forever for one and then two come along at once.
The Routine by Keith Buie
A pharmacist working the night shift of a 24 hour pharmacy deals with the late night crowd. I loved the varying people that come for their prescriptions and medicine for their ailments. I really loved the cold voice of the pharmacist and the tools that the author uses, the varying symptoms and what they could be other than what they (the customer) think it is – and the final few paragraphs show us something else that is darker than we initially thought – a prescription based American Psycho and I loved it.
Survived by Gus Moreno
A familial story concerning a death in an apartment block that had a young man thinking about the death of his grandfather – a tale about grief and how a family deal with it. This was an okay story for me, it felt a little out of place with the other calibre on show – but I enjoyed it nevertheless!
Zombie Whorehouse by Daniel W. Broallt
This was an interesting look at brothels (our protagonist is a reporter doing an expose for a newspaper); with a twist mind you! Each sex worker is a zombie, there could be a subtle hint of what working in the sex trade does to people, the violations they suffer turning them into walking zombies (or I may be overthinking things), the violation of these people continues long after death. There are many varied experiences (you can pick almost from a menu your choice of event) that are offered and as a reader the depravity of man is certainly under the microscope in full glorious and gruesome detail, as we see the continued abuse that can pollute and destroy lives just for the pursuit of sexual gratification, and death doesn’t even stop their carnal cravings. The details are hard to swallow and with some taboo items thrown into the mix (because we needed more depravity) – a distraught story that has the reader squirming in their seat.
Burnt Tongues is an example of transgressive fiction at its very best and very darkest – there are so many banging stories in this collection that one can’t help but sit back and admire the work on show. If you’re after something dark and oh so disturbing then I couldn’t think of a better anthology around. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is criminal that many of these writers are not household names – buy this book and help change that!
This book is an experience you will never forget – and one that you will keep on returning to like a dog to its sick, lapping it up one fetid steaming chunk at a time!

Burnt Tongues is published by Turner Publishing Company and is available here.

Table of Contents:

Live This Down by Neil Krolicki
Charlie by Chris Lewis Carter
Paper by Gayle Towell
Mating Calls by Tony Liebhard
Melody by Michael De Vito, Jr.
F for Fake by Tyler Jones
Mind and Soldier by Phil Jourdan
Ingredients by Richard Lemmer
The Line Forms on the Right by Amanda Gowin
A Vodka Kind of Girl by Matt Egan
Gasoline by Fred Venturini
Dietary by Brandon Tietz
Invisible Graffiti by Adam Skorupskas
Bike by Bryan Howie
Heavier Petting by Brien Piechos
Engines, O-Rings, and Astronauts by Jason M. Fylan
Lemming by Terence James Eeles
The Routine by Keith Buie
Survived by Gus Moreno
Zombie Whorehouse by Daniel W. Broallt

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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