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by Chuck Palahniuk

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
Haunted is the stuff of nightmares. Not the tearful dreams of childhood but a lurid and terrible awakening of the old fears, the bloody torso, your broken bones and running, running, running away from that thing, that thing that you know is going to kill you. Twice this week, I've erupted from bed in stark fear, soaked through, melatonin and adrenalin coursing through my veins in equal measure, heart pounding, afraid.

Now this is more like it.

After stumbling with a gender experiment in Diary, Chuck Palahniuk has returned to form with his inspired new book, a weird amalgamation of poetry and 23 short stories integrated through an outlandish novel straight out of Lovecraft. It's an inspired form that allows the author not only to explore different voices, albeit ones that are so bleakly like his own staccato style, but also to wander further into the depths of the human psyche.

Is it sick? Well, sure, but I'm not sure what else you were expecting. This is, after all, the collection that contains the infamous "Guts," a story so knee-buckling that over sixty people have passed out, dropped right there on the bookstore floor, during the past year's readings.
"The first time I read 'Guts.' nobody fainted," explains Palahniuk on the Haunted web site. "My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book you wouldn't want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover. Because only books have that power."

Haunted reflects the enormous and underestimated cultural influence of the ghost story, the dark tales told around campfires and over flashlights, although I can guarantee that nobody ever told a horror story like Palahniuk. Some of the stories in this particular volume can give Poe a run for his money and send fans of modern storytellers like King screaming for the hills.

In a smart twist, the book is set in a writer's retreat, marginally modeled after that bleak summer on the coast of Italy when Lord Byron gathered Percy Shelley, his lover Mary and a handful of others to read ghost stories and spin their dread tales, Mary's becoming the basis for Frankenstein.
"Abandon Your Life," says the advertisement. "Just disappear." In Palahniuk's version, there are no stormy nights or fictional monsters but there is lots and lots and lots of blood. It's a weird twist of ego, these writers have taken names not based on their bylines but their stories: Saint Gut-free, the Earl of Slander and the Baroness Frostbite matching stories with Miss America, the Reverend Godless and Miss Sneezy. They want nothing, nothing so much as to be famous so for them to be abandoned to Palahniuk's anonymous writer's retreat is a rich stab at irony. Trapped together in a freezing theater with the food running out, locked away from the world, they start spinning their stories.

Write your best story. This is your last chance. Write your very best fiction ever. No pressure or anything.

They're horrible, in that brilliantly written, completely original way that made Fight Club a sensation and Survivor a cult masterpiece. There is no way to describe the shocking and excessive self-violence of "Guts" but there are plenty of other dark tales to be told here.
There's the subtle jab at the New Age in "Foot Work," where a massage therapist explains the murderous art of pressure points. Palahniuk paints an X-Files-worthy portrait of a speedy serial killer in "Civil Twilight," with just enough oddity to live in the real world. The Earl of Slander tells his "Swan Song," in which a tabloid journalist plies his trade by poisoning a former child star, splashing little Kenny's drug-fueled suicide and falsified sins across the front pages in the grocery store. Darkest of all is "Exodus," an expose of a local child and family services office where a beleaguered clerk can't keep the sex dolls used in abuse interviews in stock.

Like much of Palahniuk's work, there are the creepy, almost obsessive details that punctuated the best parts of Fight Club. Although they're often changed just slightly to prevent the reading masses from blowing themselves up (in point of fact, equal parts gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate will only give you a poisonous breakfast beverage, which seems no less dangerous than Napalm), Haunted is still packed with weirdly detailed research into everything from kitchen knives to insurance fraud to cannibalism.

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