Haunted: A Novel
Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday 2005)
Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted may very well be the most appalling novel you will ever read, and you’ll guiltily savour every deplorable chapter. Or you will throw it away in utter disgust before making it through “Guts,” the first individual story contained within its covers. You will not, however, find it forgettable, no matter how desperately you may wish to do so.
The novel consists of some twenty such stories (many of which had previously appeared in magazines such as Playboy,) bound together by a bizarre plot which grows increasingly more bizarre as events unfold. The individual stories are told by a slew of different characters who have been enticed by a mysterious host to participate in a writers’ retreat at an abandoned theatre. They are told they must write an original story within 12 weeks before they are allowed to leave.
The doors are locked, the keys hidden, the atmosphere set. Let the horror commence.
The story is narrated by one of the writers in the group, though it is never clear which one. Each chapter is divided into three sections: a little background on a character, a short poem by, or about, that character, and then his or her autobiographical contribution to the “workshop.”
We discover in time that each character has some great moral shortcoming, or, at least, an embarrassing secret (shades of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.) It becomes apparent to them that their host has some shocking tactics designed to force them to write, but rather than attempt to escape their plight, they instead decide to embrace the situation.
As they imagine and discuss the glory that will be bestowed upon them if they happen to survive the retreat, their behaviours become increasingly erratic, their methods radical to the point of macabre absurdity. Realizing that anything less than an astoundingly horrific experience will only dampen their post-retreat prestige, they commence employing measures to prevent such a horrid publicity failure. Shocking, brutal measures. Because if a rival writer has a more dire experience, a more disturbing and terrible tale to share than they do, then the spotlight will be redirected accordingly when the nightmare is finally over. Thus begins an unscrupulous, perverted race for one-upmanship.
Combined with the classic Agatha Christie vibe, are elements of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, the legends of Percy and Mary Shelley with Lord Byron at Villa Dorati (events referenced in Haunted by Mrs. Clark, a central character,) as well as the reality television series Big Brother.
As readers have come to expect from Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) his masterful prose, shocking juxtapositions, and biting wit are very much present here. He once again charges unapologetically through the barriers of common decency and good taste to create a blatantly sharp satire of contemporary American life, this time focusing on the desire to achieve recognition and fame at any cost.
Similar to the work of his contemporary, Jonathan Lethem (Amnesia Moon, Motherless Brooklyn,) Palahniuk’s style is rich and flows with brilliant and colourful metaphor throughout. Some paragraphs can be read and reread for the sheer appreciation of his beautiful manipulation of language, even when the subject matter is repulsive and shocking. Rather than being jarring, this aspect of his writing allows the reader to encompass beauty and horror simultaneously, creating such a glorious bi-polar effect, that the reader leaves feeling both assaulted and satiated.
It should be noted, though, that public readings of the story “Guts”, often result in the fainting of audience members. Palahniuk explains: “”The first time I read “Guts,” nobody fainted. My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book you wouldn’t want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover. Because only books have that power.”
He succeeded. If you have a low tolerance for the grotesque, it may be advisable to avoid this book. However, if you’re adventurous enough to brave the ride, you may find that the pleasure ultimately derived, will supersede the queasiness felt along the way.