17 people go on a writer’s retreat to craft pretty words with no distractions, no contact with the outside world, all together in an abandoned theater for three months. What could possibly go wrong?
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk is a compilation of 14 disturbing short stories that are part of a bigger narrative. Following the lives of 19 people with names representative of the stories they tell, such as Saint Guts, Sister Vigilante, and Mother Nature. Palahniuk adds a much darker and satirical tone in a setting and premise that might remind the audience of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
Hopping on a bus together to participate in a writer’s retreat as seen in an advertisement, the characters start getting to know each other. But instead of this being the writer’s retreat some might dream of, it quickly becomes a self-inflicted gorefest that unveils the characters’ odious and tragic pasts.
To say Haunted is a disturbing book is an understatement. I had heard quite a bit of the novel, and the shock factor that many talked about appealed to me – I’ve gotten a little desensitized to horror and I was curious as to how I’d react to it. But nothing really prepared me for the stories – Guts in particular, being the most memorable and well-known story.
Each story is preceded by a free verse poem, and then the character tells one of the short stories pertaining to their experiences in the past. All of these stories are pretty much characterised by the same bleak, outrageous and vile descriptions. They also share the same satirical and cynical tone, personalities hardly distinguished from each other and almost as if they have become one. Evidently some of the characters point out societal issues and dark truths regarding society, for example, the glorification of poverty aesthetics:
“Poverty is the new nobility.“
However they often repeat similar platitudes. As their stories go on, they start to focus on acquiring fame and money through outrageous means, treating the retreat like a reality tv show – groupingpeople into victims, heroes or villains. They then resort to extreme means in attempt of achieving that, anywhere from self-mutilation to murder. In this particular instance, it might be a satirical point of reality TV shows – the absurdity, the greed and the deception albeit to a paramount level.
“This first disaster is a vaccination, an inoculation. Your whole life.. you’re searching for disaster -you’re audtioning disasters- so you’ll be well rehearsed when the ultimate disaster finally arrives.”
Yet, despite all these aspects, Haunted is sometimes convoluted and incoherent to me. Due to the similar tone and style of all the characters, I found myself getting slightly bored at times. Each story feels that it’s trying to one up the previous one in terms of the shock factor, but that got old quickly. There are only a few stories that I find memorable, such as “Guts”. I personally also do not enjoy the incessant ramblings and streams-of-consciousness from the characters, and when I was reading it started getting to the point where I just wanted to finish the book quickly. It’s certainly a book that offers unique exploration regarding identity, existentialism and deviance.