I’ve been working my way through all of Chuck Palahniuk’s books over the past year, reading them in order (for no particular reason, really, other than to watch how his work progresses - or not). I am up to 2005’s “Haunted”, a novel mainly comprised of 23 short stories, all strung together with a narrative arc that, again, says an awful lot about the state of contemporary American culture. At first glance, one would get the impression that it’s a riff on “Reality TV” - and there definitely is that element to it - but underneath there is much more to mine here. Yes, it’s definitely a commentary on the American addictions: fame & celebrity, but it’s also about the willingness of people who love to bitch and complain, those who love to be critical of everything around them yet do absolutely nothing to make things better - a theme that I have been thinking an awful lot about in recent months, scouring the internet. Labeled as a “horror” novel, but not in the traditional sense. There are allusions to the story about the night when Byron, Shelly, etc, were holed up in a house on a stormy night and decided to see who could come up with the most horrifying story. This is the model on which “Haunted” is based. Only the “horror” of these stories do not come with fangs, capes, transformations, ghosts, etc. They are the horrors of every day, the horrors of the culture, the horrors of those who are permanently on the outside of society - a running theme for Palahniuk.
The structure of the novel is truly original. Written in the first person plural, the narrator is simultaneously in the background and part of the group of severely dysfunctional characters that populate the story. Each character is nameless, save for the snarky nicknames they had given one another (i.e. “Saint Gut-Free”, “Miss America,” “Missing Link” and so on). The story revolves around a group of would-be writers who decide to answer an ad to give up three months of their lives in order to write their “masterpiece” and are taken and locked away in an abandoned theater, deprived of food, water, heat, etc in order to enhance their “suffering” to help them produce their masterworks. Soon, the group of writers decide that their “suffering” would make a great story in and of itself, devising a way - in “Survivor-like” fashion, to change the narrative for their own advantage in order for them all to become “famous” for their plight. Each character tells their own story, some of which are invented and others confessional tales about their particular dysfunction.
Each of the stories could stand on their own and as I was reading it, had wondered whether these stories were written with the intention of being an actual short story collection or whether they were written with the intentional purpose to blend with the overall narrative. Either way, the stories, taken on their own, make this book worth the read alone. Taken all together, what you have here is a truly original work which explores the many differing “horrors” of contemporary culture in America. Some of the stories are pretty harsh (as are the acts that take place within the overall story. It is a horror novel, after all) but some are not grotesque as in blood-splatter-gore-slasher type stories one would expect. Some of them are horrifying by the mere fact that they are so commonplace, so recognizable in the world today; the horrific things people do to themselves and to one another for all kinds of insane and idiotic reasons. Definitely worth checking out.