Chances are you know Chuck Palahniulk as the man behind Fight Club. Although he provides a fair bout of entertainment with that movie, I can’t say the same for this novel. Any potential that Haunted had was lost to Palahniulk’s love of shock value and his desire to push boundaries to nonsensical limits. The result is an amateur’s attempt at nonlinear narrative and a self-indulgent medley of stories thrown together into a muddled mess of a novel.
Haunted begins on a bus, where a group of quirky characters—with nicknames like Earl of Slander, Mother Nature and Saint Gut-Free—are on their way to a writer’s retreat, having responded to an ad put out by the mysterious Mr. Whittier. They will spend three months in isolation, where they will write their masterpieces, be it poems, novels or screenplays. Before long they realize they are being kept hostage in an abandoned theater as part of a social experiment, deprived of electricity, heat and food. Readers are granted an inside look into the characters’ previous lives via poems and short stories juxtaposed with the central plotline, in which the hostages create their own realities and steadily go insane. Basically they’re the Manson family combined with the cast of Jersey Shore.
Clearly Palahniulk’s intention is to satirize the dark side of creative impulse; the artist’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to have their story be told. We have the story of Mrs. Clark and her husband, and their attempt at becoming porn stars; we have the Earl of Slander, a reporter who murdered a former child star so he could write an award-winning article about him; and other such stories that contribute to the theme of human desperation.
However, there are also stories included for no particular reason other than shock value. For example, there’s the story of Cora Reynolds, a deranged woman obsessed with humanlike dolls; of Mother Nature, who got involved in organized crime by giving foot massages; and Saint Gut-Free’s adventures in masturbation. While the novel does have its moments, overall it’s gimmicky and downright silly, and reminiscent of reality TV in that it’s morbid curiosity that keeps one from changing the channel.
I won’t be picking up another Palahniulk book anytime soon. I’ve had more than my fair share with this harebrained attempt at being clever and macabre, which succeeded only with the latter. Memo to writers: don’t try to be unconventional and avant-garde for the sake of it, otherwise you end up looking pretentious.