BOOK REVIEW: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk


WRITERS’ RETREAT:
ABANDON YOUR LIFE FOR THREE MONTHS.
Just disappear.
Leave behind everything that keeps you from creating your masterpiece.
Your job and family and home, all those obligations and distractions–
Put them on hold for three months.
Live with like-minded people in a setting that supports total immersion in your work.  Food and lodging included free for those who qualify.  Gamble a small fraction of your life on the chance to create a new future as a professional poet, novelist, screenwriter.
Before it’s too late, live the life you dream about.  Spaces very limited.

That’s the ad that starts it all, in Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (most well-known for authoring Fight Club), which gathers a group of writers together, locked into a house for three months, with just the contents of a suitcase.

The basic format of this story is kind of a contemporary horror version of The Canterbury Tales.  These are writers who are on a pilgrimage and each gets a chance to tell their own story before the end.  It’s also kind of mixed with a horror version of a reality show like The Real World, locked in a small space to see what happens.  Things go bad rather quickly, as you might expect.

I admit I was very intrigued by the premise, being a writer myself; at a glance this sounds kind of like a Clarion or Odyssey workshop, except that the ad makes it very clear that no outside contact is allowed.

For me the best part of the book was the individual tales.  I love short stories as an art form.  Some of the short stories were really solid, commendable units of fiction in their own right.  Some I felt I just didn’t understand the point of.  Others I understood but hated.  Really that’s pretty much par for the course if this were a magazine with an editor who isn’t attuned to my particular tastes.  Overall not too bad.

The events of the actual retreat, on the other hand, I did not have a mixed reaction to.  The sections in the house, apart from trying to guess the origin of the names, were terrible.  The people in the house never felt like real people.  I can buy that these people are all a little off, because of the details of the retreat.  But they are all deranged in such a specific and implausible way that I had trouble believing that this group had been chosen without some kind of detailed psychiatric evaluation screening first.  The situation quickly devolved into something with the emotional impact of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, without the television censor board limiting the graphic violence.  I expected some insanity and vulgarity from the creator of Fight Club, no problem, but the way he used these elements here just struck me as absurd and flatly unbelievable instead of being scary or compelling.

The one thing that I liked about the framing story of the retreat was the nicknames that each writer went exclusively by, like Saint Gut-Free and Comrade Snarky.  Each of the names had to do with that writer’s core story, the reason they’re in that house.  So it made a bit of a game to  try to guess what the names actually meant.  But that wasn’t enough to really redeem it either.

The main framing story could’ve been really solid, really compelling, if he had made some effort to make their actions at all plausible, but that didn’t happen here.  There are some good parts here, but enough bad that I had to push myself to finish the book.  Overall I can’t say I’d recommend it.