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Chuck Palahniuk
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-385-50948-0
Publication Date: 05-03-2005
407 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 05-26-05

Index: Horror  General Fiction  Science Fiction

History, we are told, is written by the victors. It follows then, that those who write the history, those who control the vision, those who finally, once and for all tell the story may in so doing seize victory before any conflict has clearly materialized. Storytelling is mind control. Few writers are as fascinated with storytelling and narration as Chuck Palahniuk. In 'Survivor', he presented a story told by a psychic who knew every event before it happened, in this sense both a victor and victim of history. His latest novel, 'Haunted', is an obvious fix-up of short stories strung together by a creepy battle to control the story. 'Haunted' explores the consequences of story control and offers humiliation as the ultimate horror. It's a real lucky-bag of a novel that doesn't always hang together as a novel. The Frankenstein stitches often show through, surrounded by bright red scar tissue and oozing bodily fluids you'd prefer not to think about let alone see. As a novel, 'Haunted' may be a bit less than the sum of its parts. But that's a higher price of admission than you're likely to encounter elsewhere.

'Haunted' is a series of short stories told by the participants of a writing retreat that starts out strange and rapidly turns into a horror movie. Eighteen men and women answer an ad offering three months away from the world to create your own masterpiece. Instead of an outdoor paradise, they’re driven to a huge, ornate abandoned theater, where they’re locked in with a limited supply of food. What should be an experience of artistic exploration and fulfillment turns into a quest for control and survival.

From the now-infamous opening story 'Guts' to the apocalyptic science fiction closer 'Obsolete', Palahniuk explores, explodes and creates urban legends to his own benefit. In 'Guts', he uses the classic horror technique of tenderizing the reader with graphic descriptions, then literally pulls out a finale that manages to outdo all the vividly described horror that has preceded it. However, the Palahniuk twist is that what he describes up front so graphically is not so much horrifying as humiliating and embarrassing. The horrific upshot of all this humiliation spins off a barrage of facts into the realm of urban legend. It's an accomplished gem of humor, horror and boys-only storytelling.

While 'Guts' is clearly a standout and an attention grabber, the rest of the individual stories are also excellent, though none achieve quite the heights (or the depths, depending on how you view them) of 'Guts'. Palahniuk builds a rock-solid scaffolding of facts then sends his characters strutting out confidently, observing with aplomb as they step over the edge and plummet into an abyss of guilt, shame and embarrassing consequences. His minimalist training comes in handy here. Every word is a precisely placed pleasure. The effects vary from hilarious horror to more straightforward observations of shitty lives getting flushed down the toilet.

'Haunted' has a formal and fairly straightforward structure. An interstitial interlude observes the characters in a group, as they arrive, set up shop, or spiral into distressing ugliness. A prose poem introduces a character, then the character tells a story. The poems are a highlight here, along with the short stories. Palahniuk's language is crisp, funny and never pretentious. They're full of pithy humor and do manage to offer a hint of characterization. Each of the poems follows a fairly rigorous format carried from beginning to end. The bottom line is that they're really pretty fun to read and readers will look forward to them.

The interstitial pieces are a different kettle of fish. A big kettle of fish, within which the temperature of the water is slowly being raised to the boiling point. You do that slow enough, the fish won’t know they're being boiled. With such a large cast, it's a bit difficult for readers to keep track of who is who, even though Palahniuk does his best to ameliorate this problem by eschewing normal names and giving each of the characters descriptive nicknames. The storyteller behind 'Guts' is called Saint Gut-free, and the storyteller behind 'Hot Potting' is Baroness Frostbite. There's a lot of jostling around, bickering and backbiting (sometimes literally) as the participants in this storytelling seminar battle to control the story of the seminar. The victors -- the survivors -- will not only tell the story to the world, they'll shape what happens within to suit their own interests. As participants fall victim to their own vices and efforts to pump up "The Story of Us", as Palahniuk calls it, the power of storytelling displays a penchant for deadly force and dire farce.

Between the layers of fiction presented as fact and facts presented in fiction, between the humiliation and the horror, Palahniuk is building a vision of the Darwinian struggle for ultimate storytelling authority. His characters are more props than people, but that's in part due to the fact these are the sort of people most of us would avoid had we the chance. But the sophisticated wit at work in each of the polished gems is also at work in the ugly jewelry that these gems comprise when strung together one page after another. Every time we think we've met the final camera, and heard the voice of the final narrator, the prose voice pulls back again, the camera is revealed by the camera behind the camera. There are forces at work here greater than any single, sick, ugly human being.

'Haunted' is without doubt a unique, groundbreaking collection of short stories. Palahniuk's vision of horror as humiliation -- and humiliation that leads to horrific ends -- is simultaneously sick, silly and very, very funny. His vision of the power of storytelling and the struggle for that power is positively, even deliberately prescient. He's fashioning our history in advance by telling the story of the winners. Nobody is more powerful than the narrator, who by definition, lives to tell the tale.

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