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Reviews of Haunted (2005)

Review by nzilla (2005-05-15)
Haunted manages to be simultaneously Chuck Palahniuk’s best book and his worst. This “novel of stories” is broken down into twenty-four chapters, all with a section of main story text, most with a free verse poem, and all but the final chapter with a short story. The main story concerns a group of the usual Palahniuk-ian freaks and miscreants, whom have answered an ad to be locked-away in an abandoned theater for three months as part of a writers’ retreat. Needless to say, things don’t turn out too well.

Each short story is ostensibly a chapter in the life of the person telling it, though, while many of the stories have bearing on the main story, and there is an especially effective trilogy of stories by the same author, each one could stand alone pretty well. These stories are what makes Haunted Palahniuk’s best book; these are seriously among the best short stories I have ever read. Palahniuk has refined his writing style and improved on his already masterful technique. There’s less of the Vonnegut-esque jumping around in time that occasionally manages to confuse his other books, yet he’s kept his stream-of-consciousness approach, creating the perfect combination of traditional storytelling and minimalist technique in these sublime stories. Every one deals with its own though-provoking theme in just a few succinct pages. Every one of them is hilarious, albeit in different ways.

Even though the book has been marketed as a horror novel, only the first story, “Guts,” and a few of the later ones are really classifiable as “horror.” The rest are pure satire, and good ones at that, skewering social climbers, sexual mores, alternative medicine, and anything else one could possibly imagine. Oh, and “Guts.” “Guts,” Guts,” “Guts.” Now that’s one intense read. This story is rather infamous for the reports of people fainting during readings, and I can believe it happening. The evening I read “Guts” I just sat there, careening through the pages without blinking. Then I flopped down on my back in one swift motion, and just lay there before finally falling asleep. I went through the next day, showering, sitting in classes, and having meals, feeling queasy remembering every excruciating detail of “Guts.” If the titular matters tend to disturb you, particularly when they’re not in places they’re supposed to be, it might be a good idea to skip this one.

The reason this is also Palahniuk’s worst book is because of all the things that happen between the excellent stories. Simply put, the main story stinks. The reader never feels for any of the characters, even though they are so intriguing in their own stories. This novel has no protagonist; Palahniuk writes everything in these sections with the pronoun “we” as in Ayn Rand’s Anthem, as the group of characters as a whole seem to describe what the individuals among them are doing. This is extremely emotionally distancing, and while this may have been done to mimic the outlook of the characters, it just ends up making the reader not care when the characters die. The other problem with the main story, even more fatal, is that it just isn’t believable. The reader simply cannot imagine a group of people doing the things the characters in this novel do, at least not the way Palahniuk writes it.

To be fair, the main story could’ve made another great short story, and would have been a lot more believable in that form. The single theme that monotonously gets repeated over and over again as a full length narrative, and just isn’t interesting enough to merit so much length, would have worked nicely in a shorter form. The few and far between unique and amusing bits in the main narrative could be condensed nicely into one chapter, probably also improving the visceral reaction to the events, as the horror wouldn’t be broken up.

Chuck Palahniuk’s latest is still an extremely worthwhile book. I almost never reread novels, but I think in the future I will often take this volume off the shelf to sit down and browse a few taught pages of some of the best writing ever done, just while skipping the first parts of the chapters.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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