Review: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

hauntedI added this book to my October horror reading lineup at the last minute, but after reading it, I’m not sure it can even be classified as a horror book. Horrifying, certainly—not at all for the faint of heart (or stomach)—but not horror.

Here’s the premise.  Twenty-three writers answer an ad for a writer’s retreat: three months’ vacation from their daily lives. But rather than the idyllic setting they’ve imagined, they find themselves locked in an abandoned auditorium. Recognizing an opportunity for fame, they slowly increase their own suffering for the sake of having a good story to share once they’ve been rescued. Meanwhile, they tell one another gruesome stories detailing some aspect of their pasts.

You’ve perhaps heard the rumors that the first story in this book, “Guts,” has caused people to vomit and faint at live readings, and, yes, it’s a gross story. I have a pretty high gross-out tolerance—blood and guts don’t really bother me—but I can see how many people would find Haunted quite disgusting. It’s very, very graphic in all the grossest ways. Expect everything even mildly abhorrent to be described in full detail. Cannibalism, decaying dead bodies, boiling flesh—it’s all there. The book has been criticized for being too gross. People say that it’s just shock factor, and, yeah, of course it is. I think Palahniuk is out to shock and to disgust. But I do not think that that is this book’s problem.

No, what I dislike about this book is its structure. It’s written like this: main narrative, poem, story, repeat. I found the poems to be pointless and uninteresting. I liked the main narrative in the beginning, but after a while it just grew repetitive and stagnant. Okay, so they’re trapped in this building. They’re cutting off fingers. Someone dies. Another someone dies. They cut off more fingers. They’re terrible human beings.

As for the stories themselves, they’re the best parts of the book. But some of them just really miss the mark. They’re very unbalanced: some fantastic and compelling, some terrible. Some horribly graphic, some very tame. Some thought-provoking, some boring. I suppose you find that in any collection of short stories, but in this book the stories jump between extremes. Half the time I found myself wondering whether I should just put the book down and give up.

And it doesn’t help that the characters are unlikeable and very alike. It was difficult for me to distinguish one character from another—they’re all rather morally corrupt—and none of them has a unique voice. The stories are supposed to be coming from these individuals, yet they all sound exactly the same: like Chuck Palahniuk’s authorial voice. There is no variation whatsoever.

Beneath it all is the message that humans will do anything it takes to achieve some measure of fame, including cut off their own body parts or kill one another. They’re willing to suffer for the sake of a good story. And sometimes our stories become tools by which we learn to feel control over our own lives. Our stories can be altered to suit our purposes, whether our purposes be selfish, malicious, or self-protecting.

If you’d like a taste of this book, I’d recommend reading “Guts,” “Exodus,” “The Nightmare Box” or “Obsolete.” I’m not sure I’d recommend this book as a whole to anyone. I’m afraid they would think I was a terrible person for leading them to such a horrifying collection of stories. But if you would like to pick up this book, then you are probably the right person for it.

‘You digest and absorb your life by turning it into stories,’ he says, ‘the same way this theater seems to digest people.’ … Other events—the ones you can’t digest—they poison you.  Those worst parts of your life, those moments you can’t talk about, they rot you from the inside out. … But the stories that you can digest, that you can tell—you can take control of these past moments. You can shape them, craft them.  Master them.  And use them to your own good.

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