In 1999 Chuck's father, Fred Palahniuk, began dating an Idaho woman named Donna Fontaine. Fontaine had recently put her ex-husband Dale Shackleford in prison for sexual abuse. Shackleford had vowed to kill Fontaine as soon as he was released. After his release, Shackleford followed Fred Palahniuk and Fontaine home from a date to her apartment in Kendrick, Idaho. After shooting Fred Palahniuk in the abdomen and Fontaine in the back of the neck, Shackleford left them to die, though he allegedly returned to the scene multiple times to attempt to start a fire large enough to destroy the evidence.
After Shackleford's arrest Chuck Palahniuk was asked to be part of the decision as to whether Shackleford would receive the death sentence. Palahniuk had worked in a hospital and as a crime reporter and struggled with his stance on capital punishment. Over the next few months he began working on Lullaby. According to him it was a way to cope with the decision he had to make regarding Shackleford's death. In the spring of 2001 Shackleford was found guilty for two counts of murder in the first degree. A month after Palahniuk finished Lullaby Shackleford was sentenced to death.
Lullaby uses a framing device, alternating between the normal, linear narrative and the temporal end after every few chapters. Palahniuk often uses this format alongside a major plot twist near the end of the book which relates in some way to this temporal end (what Palahniuk refers to as "the hidden gun").
Lullaby starts with Mr. Streator talking to the reader, narrating where he is today and why he is going to tell us the backstory that will give us perspective on his current situation. "Still, this isn't a story about here and now. Me, the Sarge, the Flying Virgin. Helen Hoover Boyle. What I'm writing is the story of how we met. How we got here" [pg. 9].
This present tense information that makes this book a frame story is incorporated every few chapters as its own chapter, entirely italicized. Palahniuk uses these segments as a way to set up his "hidden gun" and as a means to foreshadow where the story is going. His present seems disconnected from the past that he narrates throughout the rest of the novel. The final chapter concludes in the present, providing the puzzle-piece that strings together all the events and makes sense out of the backstory and their current workings searching for "phenomenons."
Lullaby is the story of Carl Streator, a newspaper reporter who has been assigned to write articles on a series of cases of sudden infant death syndrome, from which his own child had died. Streator discovers that his wife and child had died immediately after he read them a "culling song", or African chant, from a book entitled Poems and Rhymes Around the World. As Streator learns, the culling song has the power to kill anyone it is spoken to. Because of the stress of his life, it became unusually powerful, allowing him to kill by only thinking the poem. During his investigations into other SIDS cases for his article, he finds that a copy of the book was at the scene of each death. In every case, the book was open to a page that contained the "culling song". Streator unintentionally memorizes the deadly poem and he semi-voluntarily becomes a serial killer (killing, for example, abusive radio hosts and people who elbow into an elevator when he is late for work). He then turns to Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who has also found the culling song in the same book and knows of its destructive power. While she is unable to help him stop using the culling song, she is willing to help him stop anyone else from being able to use it again. The two of them decide to go on a road trip across the country to find all remaining copies of the book and remove and destroy the page containing the song. They are joined by Helen's hippie assistant, Mona "Mulberry" Sabbat, and Mona's boyfriend, a nihilistic environmentalist named Oyster. Streator now must not only deal with the dangers of the culling song, but with the risk of it falling into the hands of Oyster, who may want to use it for sinister purposes.
In addition to tracking down and destroying any copy of Poems and Rhymes Around the World, the foursome hope to find a "grimoire", a hypothesized spellbook that is the source of the culling spell. Streator wants to destroy it, believing that the knowledge contained in it is too dangerous, while the others in his group want to learn what other spells it contains—partly in the hope that there is a spell to resurrect the dead. The group eventually abandons Oyster on the side of the highway after he assaults Helen in an attempt to learn the culling spell. Mona eventually figures out that the datebook Helen had been carrying throughout the trip is the grimoire they had been looking for, written in invisible ink. Helen had acquired it years earlier in the estate of the publisher of Poems and Rhymes Around the World whom she had killed with the culling spell as revenge for the deaths of her husband and child.
Initially, Mona attempts to persuade Helen and Carl to allow her to translate the book, but they are distrustful of her relationship with Oyster, leaving Mona infuriated. Helen with the resources she obtained from the publisher's estate translates the book, which in addition to the culling song contains other spells, such as a flying spell and a spell that allows the user to possess others. Carl and Helen have a romantic moment where they declare their love for each other, but Carl later is left skeptical of the relationship after Mona convinces him that Helen was using a love spell to control him. After confronting Helen about the accusation Streator decides to kill Nash, a paramedic who he inadvertently gave knowledge of the culling song to, who has been murdering beautiful models, so he can have sex with their bodies.
After his confrontation with Nash, Streator surrenders himself to the police who place him in a high security prison. During a rectal exam the sargeant of the police force asks him if "he is up for a quickie", to Streator's astonishment Helen has possessed the officer's body and helps Streator escape. During this time Oyster steals the grimoire (with the exception of the culling song) with the help of Mona and uses it to possess Helen and commit suicide. With her last amount of energy Helen possesses the police sargeant and joins Streator to kill Mona and Oyster who have been using the spells to promote their extremist views.
Throughout Lullaby, Streator is the reader's only narrator. True to his journalist occupation, he is detailed in many of his descriptions of the events going on around him. At the same time, Streator tends to be philosophical and cynical about the world around him and the people he meets, probably because of the tragedies that have haunted him for many years. In regards to the actual sequence and happenings of events, he seems to be a reliable narrator. But often his philosophical asides seem to overshadow his duty as a balanced narrator. At times, it is frustrating not knowing the true motives of Helen, Mona, or Oyster and, by the end, it is apparent that Streator could not always be trusted. But the nature of the story insists that we only get one perspective; one man retelling the past that has resulted in the present. Streator himself knows the issues with how he is telling the story, but in his recognition of the potential problems of a first person perspective, he becomes a more reliable narrator.
Another problem is the teller. The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter. The media bias. How the messenger shapes the facts. What journalists call The Gatekeeper. How the presentation is everything.
The story behind the story.
Where I'm telling this is from one cafe after another. Where I'm writing this book, chapter by chapter, is never the same small town or city or truck stop in the middle of nowhere. [pg. 7]
Carl Streator is the protagonist of Lullaby. Over the course of the novel, a few important aspects of his character are revealed that play a part in his narration style and his character. Firstly, he imparts to us at the beginning of Chapter 2 that he is a journalist. Because the novel is set up as a frame story, the majority of Lullaby is written as a retelling by Streator himself. This is apparent throughout the novel as he describes the people and events around him. He will often recount a person’s appearance in terms of 'the details': "The details of Nash are, he’s a big guy in a white uniform. He wears high-top white track shoes and gathers his hair into a little palm tree at the crown of his head" (p. 25).
His past, which we know little about until the end, explains a good portion of his character. He begins to notice the book Poems and Rhymes From Around the World at each scene of infant death where he has been assigned to report. Streator soon makes the connection and begins a quest to rid every library and home of the culling song, which at first seems to be a philosophical journey to do what is ultimately right. But, we soon learn that Streator is motivated by a dark past that has changed him into the cynical, dark reporter he is today. The death of his wife and child, a direct result of the reading of the culling song, had distanced him from reality for nearly twenty years. He makes no direct comment about this history until Chapter 29, wherein he talks about his unknowing postmortem sexual intercourse with his wife Gina and the perfect quiet of his baby Katrin,
That was my last really good day. It wasn’t until I came home from work that I knew the truth… Gina was still lying in the same position… Katrin was still quiet. [p. 179]
I tell him where I’m living. I tell him the name I use now. I tell him where I work. I tell him I know how it looks, with Gina and Katrin dead, but I didn’t do it. I just ran…I say, I don’t know what to do. I say, but it’s all going to be okay. [p. 218]
In the end, he seems content in his mission alongside the police sergeant (aka Helen) to chase after the story.
The setting of Lullaby is constantly changing. In both the present tense narration and the story he is reflecting on, Streator is constantly moving in pursuit of something. He works in a big city atmosphere and lives in an apartment surrounded by other tenants who become symbolic of everything Streator hates. Soon after he meets Helen, they start their cross-country mission. Most of the towns they end up in are small, nowhere places that seem to represent the emptiness that the culling song creates in people lives. Similarly, the trucker stops that Streator and Helen drive through in their present-day adventure are representative of how the stories that they are chasing are temporary. The idea that a story is always told ‘after the fact’ seems to hint at a bigger picture: humans are a victim of their past.
On May 17, 2016, a Kickstarter campaign was launched aimed at adapting the novel Lullaby into a feature film. The film will be directed by Andy Mingo, who previously directed the short film Romance, based on the short story of the same name originally published in Playboy Magazine. The adaptation is Palahniuk's first screenwriting endeavor, as he and Mingo have co-written the script together.ISBN 0-385-50447-0 (hardcover, 2002)
ISBN 0-7862-5098-4 (hardcover, 2003)
ISBN 0-385-72219-2 (paperback, 2003)