Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Is it possible for horror to get better than Steven King? To be darker and more dramatic than Poe? After reading Haunted I sure as hell would bet that Chuck Palahniuk would give these guys a run for their money. Haunted reflects the massive and underestimated cultural influence of the classic ghost story, those sinister tales told by boy scouts around campfires and over flashlights. Though of course in a Palahniuk version these innocent stories would be dripping with sadistic, physiologically disturbing, cannibalistic aquatic masturbation. Completely f'ed up, but oh so inviting! But like I've said before Palahniuk belongs in a straightjacket high on uppers and tranquilizers. But then again don't most ingenious writers?

Haunted is set around a so called "writer's retreat" (AKA some dark abandoned theater cut off from the world). A group of seventeen delinquents and rejects respond to a random ad posted around Oregon that states, "WRITER'S RETREAT: ABANDON YOUR LIFE FOR THREE MONTHS. Just disappear. Leave behind everything that keeps you from creating your masterpiece. Your job and family and home, all those obligations and distractions -- put them on hold for three months. Live with like-minded people in a setting that supports total immersion in your work. Food and lodging free for those who qualify. . . . Before it's too late, live the life you dream about. Spaces very limited."

In Palahniuk's version of a horror story, there are no monsters, no creepy castles or stormy night but there is absolutely no shortage of blood and carnage. It's Lord of the Flies for adults. The characters (or so called writers) have taken names derived from their narratives: Saint Gut-free, the Earl of Slander and the Baroness Frostbite matching stories with Miss America, the Reverend Godless and Miss Sneezy. All with the ambitions to be famous. For them to be abandoned to Palahniuk's anonymous writer's retreat is quite a paradox. Together in a dark, freezing theater they sabotage their food supply, ensure they are truly trapped (locked away from the outside world) and start spinning their stories of their pain and suffering to further their stardom upon rescue.

The format of the book is unique. Each chapter contains 3 sections: a story chapter, a poem about a particular writer on the retreat and a story written by that writer. Chapter One "Guts." Saint Gut-free. Utterly repulsive. Take your most embarrassing and most horrific moments combine them then multiply them by ten and you still couldn't understand the magnitude of this story. First published in Playboy in 2004, Palahniuk has prided himself on the sixty or so people who have fainted during his public readings. In a September 2004 reading of "Guts" at Cooper Union in New York City, no listener admitted to fainting. When Palahniuk said he was surprised, many members of the audience replied, "This is New York!" in a nod to the alleged inability to shock the city's denizens (Way to represent my fellow New Yorkers!)

By the end of this twisted novel one will need therapy. Its sickness is like a disease, as you never before could have imagined such brutality. Yet overall it paints a sad but realistic picture of humans; we are the victims of ourselves.

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