by Kevin Dole
From the references to The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales in the jacket copy, one might expect Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted to establish mainstream literary credibility for its author. It doesn’t: Haunted is no more or less literary than any other book by Palahniuk. Similarly, early reference in the text to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and the Villa Diodati—the country house where Mary Shelley and friends created, among other tales, the story of Frankenstein and the modern vampire archetype—might make one expect the book to be a horror novel. It isn’t: Haunted, while often disturbing and occasionally disgusting, it is not a very scary book.
Haunted is, despite all indicators otherwise, a black satire, like most of Palahniuk’s work. What differentiates Haunted from his other fiction is that it is a collection of short tales told by disparate, desperate characters, much like the classical works of literature that it so conspicuously mentions. The storytellers are all participants in an unconventional writers' retreat, held by the extremely wealthy and aged eccentric Mr. Whittier—who, in the grand tradition of wealthy eccentrics given to odd experiments, is not who he seems (his secret being, in the tradition of Palahniuk, bizarre enough to make one simultaneously laugh aloud and squirm)—in an abandoned theater. There the novel’s 18 narrators spend three months in isolation in hopes of creating their magnum opus.
The stories that they produce, masterpiece or no, comprise the text. This structure is not without its flaws. It allows Palahniuk to explore his major themes from multiple angles, but despite this freedom Haunted feels almost mathematically rote. Each chapter is a self-contained story. Each story is prefaced by an unremarkable prose poem that introduces the character and establishes the circumstance of the story. In between stories we learn how the group is coping with confinement in the face of ever increasing privations (this connective tissue is told in collective third person, the same “we” that presumably narrates the poems). But while predictable, the real reason that this structure proves problematic is that it places total reliance on the individual stories, which are a decidedly mixed bag.
Most of them, thankfully, are at least worth reading, and some are even great. Included is the notorious “Guts”—which, along with “Exodus” and “Speaking Bitterness,” shows Palahniuk at his provocative best. The final story, “Obsolete,” is an allegorical tale of speculative fiction that would have been at home in the best of the ’70s sci-fi pulps, and “Hot Potting” would make the high point in any horror anthology. But too many others are merely mediocre. Readers quickly learn that each story will contain a Shocking Twist, and while always inventive, the twists are sometimes desperate in their outrageousness. Stories like “Punch Drunk” and “The Nightmare Box” just try too hard and are the worse for it.
The relationship between the stories is also confusing. A collection of short fiction needn’t necessarily be cohesive, but much like the characters that tell them, these stories just don’t get along with each other. “Dissertation” and “Post-Production” don’t even seem to occupy the same reality. And Haunted takes a bewildering turn toward the paranormal in its second half; it’s difficult to reconcile later explorations of werewolves and psychic powers with earlier stories of personal failure and devastating irony. Most of the stories succeed on their individual merits but fail when taken collectively, especially since the subtitle tells us that Haunted is supposed to be a novel.
The overarching narrative shows Palahniuk at his worst. As befits a group of people so damaged, the characters quickly move from self-pity to self-destruction. Unfortunately, they all have suggestive names like The Reverend Godless and Miss Sneezy. These pseudonyms and the structure of the theater itself are probably meant to recall “The Masque of the Red Death” but instead the action takes on pastiche, like the end solution to a session of the board game Clue— "Comrade Snarky in the Blue Velvet Lobby with the Chef's Knife!" The mayhem wears out quickly, becoming profoundly ineffective and at times incoherent. Palahniuk wants to talk about self-sabotage and our "culture of blame"; he wants to address the connections between storytelling, victimhood, and voyeurism. He does this with some success inside the characters’ stories, but in the collective narrative he feels it necessary to tell us explicitly, and this weakens the work.
Haunted starts to come together as a book at the end, despite the supernaturalism; it nearly closes with a tone that's almost hopeful (in a Samuel Beckett sort of way), but its grace is quickly dashed by pointless, mean-spirited irony. This is a book that can be admired for its complexity and ambition, but will likely be remembered for its failure.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005