Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2005, 404 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50948-0

By now, we all know that Chuck Palahniuk is one sick puppy. His fans, his publicists and his editor all thank him for it. But at some point, believing one’s own press releases becomes a dangerous thing. A feedback loop is created in which reputation takes over and self-parody soon follows. While that tendency has been obvious for most of the author’s past books, Haunted comes closest to crossing the line at which the myth of Chuck Palahniuk may be consuming the real author.

Haunted is arguably a departure for Palahniuk. Obviously, it’s his longest book to date: Whereas his previous novels all nestled comfortably under 300 pages, this one goes above 400. But this is not really a novel. It’s more accurate to call this a fix-up, a short story collection thinly disguised by a framing device that becomes increasingly more clumsy as the narrative advances.

As a short story collection, hey, it’s classic Palahniuk: humour and horror mixed together with a heady side-order of sadism, cynicism and post-modern detachment. Palahniuk’s universe is crammed with sociopaths and the whole point of his fiction is seeing this world through completely depraved minds. It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate what he’s doing with his fiction: kind of a who-blinks-first game of gross-out. Readers now expect the extreme from Palahniuk, and the man cheerfully obliges.

So we get stories like “Guts”. If you’re a Palahniuk fan, you already know about it: It’s the infamous story that has caused, so far, over four dozen people to faint at public readings. Strong advance notice and if readers are liable to just read it and go “ewww/coool”, it’s not difficult to image how a public performance could make people swoon. Other stand-out stories of the book include “Foot Work” (about the dark side of new-age, though its final conclusion is telegraphed pages ahead), “Slumming” (acting like hobos is fun until people get killed), “The Nightmare Box” (in which the ultimate truth drives people crazy; I’ve got my hunch on what “it” may be), “Product Placement” (a story that may make you re-think putting a bad review on-line: Uh-oh!) and “Obsolete” (perhaps Palahniuk’s first foray in outright SF, even as outdated fifties-style Science Fantasy.)

As with all other short story collections in the history of literature, there are a number of other stories that don’t work so well. “Exodus”, for instance, is almost unbearably disturbing in its depiction of a child abuse police squad turning out to be latent child abusers themselves, but at some point the story becomes so extreme that the only reaction is a chuckle and a “Oh, Chuck, you’re just trying too hard now”. At least a handful of other stories are similarly too much. Once you figure out that people are going to die in nearly every story, it’s not difficult to guess the ending pages before it happens. It doesn’t help that the cumulative effect of Haunted is closer to repetition than horror. Grand Guignol style works, but it may work better in thirteen stories rather than twenty-three.

What’s also unfortunate is that the framing story isn’t as strong as it could be. In a few words, it’s about a group of “writers” isolating themselves at a retreat in order to spend three uninterrupted months writing a perfect masterpiece. But things go wrong (or right) when everyone involved in this retreat (including the organizer and his assistant) are revealed to be latent psychopaths. They kill each other, they tell stories (the twenty-three short stories) and they kill each other some more.

On one level, you can certainly read the framing device as a warped take-off on reality television. This becomes especially obvious when the collective narrator (the “I” of the framing story is meant as a royal singular) admits that all of them would rather survive through a harrowing ordeal and write that up rather than spend any effort creating something original. As long as the others do the dying, why not sabotage the heating, burn the place, spoil the food and enhance the suffering? What’s a little self-mutilation, cold-blooded murder and outright cannibalism when you can emerge from the experience with a fat film contract about your life story? Why not select a role and try to kill each other according to dramatic logic?

It’s twisted, it’s quirky, it’s original and it’s even a little bit of fun. But that fun disappears quickly once the demolition derby starts and it becomes obvious that none of the characters are worth saving. Heck, they’re not even up to the talk of being honest writers, let alone survivors. What’s a story without heroes? ponders Palahniuk, knowing fully well that his own novel doesn’t have any. It’s not that the book doesn’t have any interest (for all it’s fault, it’s impossible to stop reading), but that the reader clearly emerges on top of the author in this game of gross-out. Once readers figure out where things are going, it’s hard for Palahniuk to pop any more surprises out of his twisted mind. And it’s a shame, because there are some really good moments in the framing story. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t really work as the framework of the novel.

And that brings us back to the stories, which don’t really fit in the framing device any better than the framing device holds up together: A number of them suppose apocalyptic experiences that don’t lead back to the framing situation. The device of punctuating the straight prose segments with “poetry” about the characters doesn’t work either: the “poetry” reads like regular prose with quirky line breaks and it’s not those line breaks that improve the content.

All told, Haunted isn’t truly satisfying, but it’s more of a disappointment than a failure. Palahniuk’s style remains as hypnotically readable as ever before, even as you find yourself smirking over the content. Should you be able to shake the book hard enough to send all the weaker parts flying away, you’d be left with a decent 200-250 pages volume of savvy shocks and thrills. The main mistake of the book is in trying too much, breaking the suspension of disbelief so important in reading about Palahniuk’s peculiar world.

Disbelief is so unsuspended, in fact, that Haunted may the Palahniuk book that may make sceptics out of regular fans. I even found myself snapping out of the stories at some point, muttering stuff like “now I know that you’re making this up.” (Movie studios don’t pay “line people”, Chuck. Heck, save for Star Wars, there aren’t even any “line people”, Chuck.) And once you step back, even slightly, from the gross-out game so crucial in appreciating the nihilistic charm of Palahniuk, it’s hard to get back in the proper mindset. Suddenly, the puppet lines of Palahniuk’s fiction become a little too obvious. The body count loses its importance. The horrors become pleas for attention. The gross-out becomes tedious. And Haunted loses its power to haunt by trying too hard.

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