Book Review: Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Haunted’

This will be a space to write reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. I’m in a writing mood today so my second review of the day will discuss Chuck Palahniuk’s 2005 short story collection ‘Haunted’.

Chuck Palahniuk has always been an author who I felt that I *should* like. Like every other teenage male I went through high school with Fight Club being my favorite movie, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden epitomizing cool and the movie’s angsty anti-conformity message resonating as if it was speaking directly to a nation of 16 year old guys.

The movie (and book) holds up for what it is, though obviously as you get older some of the story’s bullshit doesn’t necessarily hold up. That said, I have fond memories of both book and movie and have had Palahniuk on my ‘to-read’ list for quite a while so I decided to pick up his short story collection from 2005, Haunted, to see how I felt about it.

Palahniuk has a style, a kind of manic/weird creativity, that creates interesting subjects and topics and is something all on his own. I knew going in this book would be dark, a “horror” book of short stories. I loved the overarching concept of the book right off the bat seventeen strangers lock themselves into an abandoned theater for three months for a ‘writer’s retreat’, for each of them to tell a story. Their names in the book reflect an aspect of their personality rather than ‘normal’ names (like Mother Nature, the Duke of Vandals and Agent Tattletale), and each character tells a different story that reveals their personality.

Sounds cool, right? You have to give Palahniuk credit for the idea, and for crafting a book of short stories in a new way. But unfortunately, the book’s concept doesn’t hold up in its execution.

The first short story in the book, titled “Guts”, is a famous one–Palahniuk published it in Playboy and it is famous for making people pass out at live readings. It is incredibly disgusting, disturbing and sickening–I had a hard time getting through it myself. However, it is effective and accomplishes its singular goal. It can be not your type, but it can’t be considered a failure.

What makes the book a failure is that following that, EVERY story is a disgusting, depraved and violent mess. Every story, including and especially the overarching story of the people at the writer’s retreat, is progressively more macabre. Which, again, is fine if that is his goal–but something about this feels mean-spirited.

Some of its stories are interesting and even humorous reads, such as “Foot Work”, about the dark arts of foot massages. However, these brighter moments are marred by gross-out violence porn, like long essays about how a young girl’s body decomposes as it is left outside, a story predicated around police having sexual relations with realistic child dolls, characters chopping off various body parts–it all just feels wrong and aiming to be shocking for the sake of shock. It’s a dark book,  but it is also a cruel book.

Further, each short story–told by a different character–reads exactly the same. None of these characters had a different style, nobody wanted to tell a different kind of story? The concept of different characters, each with their own story, fails here. You are clearly reading Chuck Palahniuk, and there isn’t a single story that makes you feel differently about that.

I understand that Haunted is presented as a satire of sorts of fame and perhaps even reality TV–the characters in the main story all are so concerned with becoming famous that they don’t care whether they die, become horrifically disfigured or even cannibalize each other–but nothing about this level of violence is funny, intelligent or appeasing to read. It’s gross and disturbing, but worse than that, it’s cheap.

Rating: **



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