Haunted is a series of short stories and poems, loosely related insofar as each is written from the perspective of different member of a group of degenerate sociopaths locked together in a masochistic “Writers’ Retreat”.
**trigger warning** this review mentions some extreme and horrific aspects of the book, including miscarriage.
The backbone of Haunted that ties each poem and short story together is a horrific three-month-long “Writers’ Retreat”. Each character with a poem and story to tell throughout the novel apparently answered a mysterious advertisement to attend an isolated retreat for writers. The progressively awful living conditions in this writers’ retreat are returned to between each character’s respective poem/short story. This pattern through the novel – Main Story, then Character Poem, then Character Backstory, repeat ad nauseam – might have worked, had the main story been stronger.
Palahniuk starts his haphazardly assembled and brutal collection of short stories with the appropriate titled ‘Guts’ which, I gather from the Author’s Note at the end, is famous for causing fainting spells among readers. I’ll admit that this graphic story of masturbation gone wrong made my palms sweaty and hooked me quickly. It was truly stomach churning and horrific. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel paled by comparison and Palahniuk played his strongest hand too soon. The remainder of the short stories and poems, or which there are many, have melted together in my memory into a vague sense of disgust and unease… like a grotesque John Carpenter creation.
The suspension of disbelief needed to accept the doomed writers’ retreat was too much for me. We’re told, for example, that the ‘Miss America’ character discovers she is newly pregnant at the start of the three month long retreat; however is already ‘showing’ within the first month and has her waters break and miscarries sometime towards the end of the three month ordeal. That’s just… not how the female body works.
The farther along the writers’ retreat storyline progresses, the more extreme the violence described. A character castrates himself… then another character chokes to death as he tries to eat the dismembered member. The aforementioned Miss America willingly drinks a stew containing her miscarried foetus. It’s just gross for the sake of being gross and had such little emotional resonance, I found myself rolling my eyes with each escalating scene rather than feeling nauseated or challenged.
This was my first foray into the written works of Chuck Palahniuk and I’m not terribly impressed. With each part of this novel, it felt like the author was trying SO HARD to make me cringe and disgusted, rather than construct a coherent storyline or interesting characters. I’m not opposed to novels depicting gratuitous violence, reprehensible characters, or the worst traits of humanity. But there must be more than that. I trudged through this book, hoping against hope that Palahniuk would pull some ‘Fight Club’-esque rabbit out of the hat and make this novel worthwhile before it concluded. He did not.
In the penultimate chapter of the novel, the entire storyline of the writer’s retreat is randomly abandoned in favour of a modern re-telling of the story of Adam and Eve. I have no idea why this chapter was inserted into the novel. It was barely even coherent… Something about a manned space shuttle to Venus discovering that Venus is actually an afterlife paradise, resulting in mandatory mass suicide on earth so souls could return to paradise…? Huh? Again, it felt like the author was trying so hard to be transgressive and deep, but all he could elicit from me was: 😒
The novel then concludes with a rushed and befuddling ending, but not before Palahniuk crammed in some sanctimonious justification for everything the reader endured throughout Haunted, because ‘books are the last safe medium to push the envelope of decency’ or something. Bitch, please. If you want to tell a story about a woman miscarrying and eating her baby in a stew, then you better have a better justification than “because I can”.
I really need to stop reading books based off recommendations I’ve seen on Reddit… I’m having a bad run!
1 Murderous Bowling Ball out of 5