Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Haunted is about a group of writers, who have been assembled by the conniving Mr Whittier to attend a writers group. The location of the retreat is in an isolated theatre with no access to the outside world. At first all seems well, but the attendees are soon facing tribulations as their food sources begin to dwindle and they come to the realisation that they are trapped and facing an uncertain future. The book is interspersed with poems and stories about the various attendees, whose names define their very natures. There is Saint Gut-Free, Miss America, Chef Assassin, Miss Sneezy and the Reverend Godless, amongst others.
Though Haunted gives the illusion of having a plot in the form of the anticipated fate of the members of the writers group, the book is not of the plot-centred variety and is in essence more about the short stories. The author utilises these to explore a variety of themes, including how humans are fundamentally addicted to conflict, the media-obsessed nature of society and our competitiveness, illustrated by the characters’ universal desperation for the attention that all writers crave. Victimisation is another recurring subject matter, particularly with regards to how it is our inherent nature to blame others rather than ourselves.
In typical Palahniuk fashion, he horrifies, disgusts and amuses the reader in equal measure. Take ‘Shoo-rook’ – the sound of a gypsy girl’s throat being cut by a Nazi officer in an extermination camp during World War II. In this particular story the reader is told how it is a regular occurrence for the officer in question to force gypsy girls to perform fellatio and at the point of ejaculation, ‘Shoo-rook’. However the officer eventually makes the costly mistake of not withdrawing his member in time, resulting in it being severed. This is far from an isolated example of scandalous depictions of revulsion. In another story intestines are sucked out of an anus by a swimming pool vacuum, whilst other instances include several pages dedicated to a description of a dead girl in the various stages of decay. There is also cannibalism, yet more severing of members and much more besides.
Though Haunted is without doubt extreme, harrowing, controversial and provocative, the author achieves more than merely shocking his audience. Palahniuk skilfully explores a variety of themes that he expertly weaves through the myriad of different characters and their stories, through which intelligent commentary on the human psyche is dispensed.