Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby will not comfort you, or soothe you, or ease you into a restful slumber. It will most likely disturb and haunt you, though. Palahniuk is a master of modern horror, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that this novel’s title refers to a sweet song which has the power to obliterate humankind.
Lullaby is narrated by Carl Streator, a bitter misanthrope who works as a journalist. When Streator is assigned to investigate a series of crib deaths, he fixates on the minute details associated with each case. This strategy allows Streator to keep thoughts of his deceased wife and child from overwhelming him, but it also brings him closer to a terrible revelation. Each time he visits another stricken home and memorizes another tragic scene, he gets closer to identifying the pattern lurking within these seemingly random deaths.
All of the children died suddenly, their bodies unmarked by injury or illness. But in each of the affected homes, there is one insidious weapon hiding in plain sight: a book called Poems and Rhymes from Around the World. Within that seemingly innocuous tome, nestled on page 27, is a lullaby that waits to be activated by unwitting parents and caretakers. This lullaby doesn’t merely summon sleep, however. As Streator discovers, the poem is actually an ancient culling song that was sung to the young and the weak to invoke a painless death, to end suffering quickly and without struggle.
Streator makes the connection between the culling song and the string of crib deaths, but the knowledge has a paralyzing effect on him. He quickly realizes that he cannot draw attention to the culprit, lest the culling song fall into the hands of someone willing to use it intentionally. Streator knows that once this deadly lullaby begins to circulate within the channels of mass communication, it will become unstoppable, “a plague you can catch through your ears.”
In order to ensure that the culling song disappears before more people die, Streator solicits help from Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who sells haunted and possessed homes to unsuspecting buyers. Along with two New Age Wiccans, Helen and Streator embark on a quest to locate and destroy all the existing copies of Poems and Rhymes from Around the World. The problem is that the lullaby has already carved out a space for itself in Streator’s mind. Without wanting to, he has memorized the culling song, and his rage and despair are so intense that he doesn’t have to utter the words of the poem in order to murder.
Fans of Fight Club will definitely delight in the social commentary and general weirdness that fuel this saga. Palahniuk’s writing style employs repetition throughout, but this is not indicative of the author’s laziness. On the contrary, it functions as a clever aesthetic mechanism that connects the text of Lullaby to its thematic preoccupation with incantations and spells.