Published by Anchor Books, Random House on 3rd May 2005
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Horror
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"Haunted" is a novel made up of twenty-three horrifying, hilarious, and stomach-churning stories. They are told by people who have answered an ad for a writer’s retreat and unwittingly joined a “Survivor”-like scenario where the host withholds heat, power, and food. As the storytellers grow more desperate, their tales become more extreme, and they ruthlessly plot to make themselves the hero of the reality show that will surely be made from their plight.
Chuck Palahniuk believes that you are an idiot.
I say this without any definitive proof, of course, but having read this particular novel of the man’s in its entirety and parts of another (Damned, if you are curious), I think that this assertion is a fairly reasonable one. My experience with Palahniuk is quite limited, obviously, so you may freely label me as being overly judgmental or poorly informed without having to worry about me heatedly debating your claims. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am too quick to such a strong opinion.
I find myself, however, caring little about the ultimate validity of my views, because, after forcing myself through Haunted, I think it likely that I will never touch Palahniuk’s work again, and I am not in the least upset by this decision.
I picked this one up because I have long suspected that its author’s craft is the type that is, if absolutely nothing else, entertaining. Hate the narrative, hate the characters, hate the man behind it all, but you will get a memorably weird and undeniably wild romp through the literary underbrush regardless. I find, however, that Palahniuk’s creations do not work well in this regard. All of the requirements are present and accounted for, and there are occasional hints of the “so bad, it’s good” storytelling style that we all so love to indulge in, but the packaged product in the end falls dismally short, and it is because of the aforementioned declaration:
Chuck Palahniuk believes that you are an idiot.
On the other side of this is a very clear egotism that is completely alienating. I have never heard the man speak in interviews, but his writing makes it clear that he believes himself to be some kind of genre-defying, boundary-pushing, oh-so-clever auteur who crafts stories of brilliant horror and social commentary.
And this would be fine, if his tales were actually any of these things. But, oh, they are not.
Here we have the admittedly interesting premise of a group of writers who are left isolated in an old theatre for several months, during which time they are expected by the retreat’s organizer to write, and only write. The goal is to end the period with one of them creating something truly great, something classic. Something that will be remembered for generations to come. Something that will bring its creator wealth and fame and all of the other trappings of success. And so we are given, interspersed throughout the ongoing plot of this getaway, the various stories put together by the different characters, each one drawn from the real-life experiences of the participants. All of them, however, have signed to the expedition for a very different reason: they hope to turn the relatively comfortable adventure into a monstrous imprisonment, and consequently sell their story as a victim and survivor to the media as a quick and easy means of “making it big.”
It’s an intriguing scenario, and one that very quickly loses all potential thanks to the conceit of its handler. Within the first dozen pages or so, we are given the first short story, and it is so absurdly grotesque that I cannot help but wonder how many readers have abandoned this book after reading it. It is, unfortunately, a portent of what is to come.
Welcome to “Guts.” If you know anything about Haunted, you have probably heard of this charming piece. It centers around the act of masturbation and the increasingly vile instruments that men have used to heighten the satisfaction that they get out of the act. The grand finale involves a pool pump, a copious amount of various bodily fluids, and the titular word. Use your imagination.
Yes, it’s a fairly disgusting tableau, but it’s meant to be. Palahniuk hits you with this immediately in order to impress upon you how “shocking” and “twisted” the rest of the narrative is to be. The problem is that, ultimately, nothing else is able to quite sink to the truly abysmal depths that “Guts” revels in from the beginning, and so you are left with a sort of disappointment that quickly numbs itself into apathy. Oh, it’s all undeniably foul, but lacks any of the power found in the first sequence. I will explain why shortly.
Palahniuk, you see, clearly thinks that his work is something special. He is certain that the frequent heinousness of his little vignettes is powerful and creative thanks to his reliance on explicit detail and a heavy-handed integration of larger sociocultural commentary. He thinks himself hip for writing such things. And this misguided confidence of his only makes the whole affair even more infuriating, because both of these characteristics are poorly executed in the extreme.
When does excessive violence, or excessive anything, work best? My answer: when it is used sparingly. By placing moments of bodily destruction and raining viscera within contexts of more obvious subtlety and restraint, the stark contrast between what is the norm (the context) and what is deviant (the occasional extreme) makes the impact of the latter powerful.
Consider, if you will, some R-rated action film. If the near entirety of the picture’s running time is devoted to repeated displays of over-the-top bloodshed, you are going to find yourself very quickly desensitized to it all, are you not? You come to expect it, and it loses all meaning when the consistently high levels of suffering morph something potentially realistic into something cartoonish.
Palahniuk’s approach to horror is the exact same way. He crams every gross idea that he can think of into this relatively short novel and believes that the menagerie of ghastly developments will have a uniformly powerful effect upon the reader. Surprise, surprise: it doesn’t. In reality, it takes all of the first chapter and its inclusion of “Guts” for one to grow indifferent to it all. When you can reasonably expect some new sickening twist every other page, you very quickly come to not care, because you know what to expect. It gets to the point where you can predict with an admirable degree of accuracy what new depravities Palahniuk still has in store, because you come to realize that there is absolutely no chance of him not including such ideas.
Cannibalism? Certainly! Self-mutilation? Of course! The butchering of beloved pets? Absolutely! Twisted sexual fantasies? Obviously!
Every new spectacle grows increasingly boring, because of course Palahniuk would go there. Why would he not?
The Social Commentary
Similar to the above point, social commentary works best when it is done with subtlety and the reader is given the chance to make connections through his or her own discoveries and intuitions. When the “message” is imparted in a blatant and repetitive manner, it tends to lose its cleverness and potential to work effectively as discourse.
And this is why I believe Palahniuk sees his readers as imbeciles. He appears to have absolutely no faith in the mental prowess of the average bookworm, and consequently believes it necessary to spell out in neon colors the themes of his story over and over again.
This isn’t an instance of an author carefully placing clues and then retiring to the shadows, confident in his belief that his followers will be savvy enough to find the connections between them. This isn’t an instance of an author placing clues and then giving his followers a gentle wink and nudge to put them on the right path. No, this is an instance of an author taking his clues, assembling them together into a very obvious whole, sitting his followers down and condescendingly explaining to them the clear meanings of the result, and then repeatedly smacking them in the face with it at regular intervals whilst screaming “DO YOU GET IT?!” to make sure that the point has been firmly grasped.
It’s absolutely ridiculous. It becomes apparent very quickly that Palahniuk’s intention with the frame narrative is to critique through a form of indulgence and mockery the vapidness of celebrity culture and the lack of meaning in fame. Not a bad thing to explore (though it has certainly been done time and again), but it becomes the most obnoxious thing in the world when the author spends, I kid you not, nearly every page making explicit references to these concepts. The interwoven short stories do not help much, as each, through their own uniquely disgusting ways, do much the same thing, only with different ideals. And once one has finished, it is right back to the agonizing repetition that involves the same phrases regarding “the camera behind the camera” and the “playing of actors within a scene” and the “constructing reality through our lens” time and time again. And again. And again. And again.
It also does not help matters that these characters are completely and utterly without merit. Every single one of them is either grossly perverted, unbearably pretentious, incredibly stupid, or all three. This last one is especially noteworthy, because all of the issues that these people face as they slowly find themselves driven to death and madness are self-inflicted. These people are idiots. They continue to aggravate their own plights as they chop off limbs, spoil their food supplies, and wreck their dwindling list of living amenities so as to turn their eventual rescue into some publicity craze that guarantees them a lucrative book and film deal.
I suppose that this is the entire point that Palahniuk is making. I understand that. But, again, if your point has to be imparted with as little tact and as much undeserved conceit as it is here, it is not going to work in the slightest.
We do get it, Palahniuk. There is no need for you to play the role of the wise father who must patiently explain to his children the intricacies of adulthood whilst simultaneously trying to prove to them that he is still “with it.”
We are adults. And you are not “with it.”
I wash my hands of this novel. It is pointlessly vulgar, insultingly conveyed, and dripping with a haughtiness that would be much easier to swallow if it were even remotely earned.
Haunted is not powerful. It is not poignant. It is not smart. It is simply a waste, and I regret reading it wholeheartedly.