Chuck Palahniuk’s book is an intriguing, modern, and successful take on an ancient story-telling technique. In the frame of the narrative, we meet a number of screwed-up would-be artists who all hide shameful faults or sins in their past, and who all answer a tempting newspaper ad that offers a three-month retreat with all expenses paid, all necessities provided. The wannabe writers are all eager to jump on the opportunity as they imagine that far from the madding crowd they will finally be able to write their masterpieces, and then return to their regular life all renewed.
Instead of an idyllic writers’ community, however, they find themselves in a gloomy, abandoned, old theater building where – true – they have everything they need to stay alive, but the simple fact that the circumstances are not exactly as they imagined is enough for them to feel cheated. And just as in their real life they always found an excuse for not writing, here, too, shut off from the world, they always manage to blame their circumstances and avoid writing altogether.
Despite the fact that the characters don’t write the supposed masterpieces that have been blooming in their minds for long, they still become artists, creative people – doubly so. First, they come up with the idea that they make a novel – or rather: a large-scale, bloody, bound-for-success drama – out of their own lives, and jointly they create the fiction that they were forced into the role of the victim and sentenced to three months of suffering by the unknown evil who put in the newspaper ad they replied to. And second, while they get deeply immersed into their roles as victims, they tell stories to pass the time. These stories take up the bulk of the book.
A couple of literary parallels are immediately obvious here – some of them are mentioned in the book, too. The structure of Haunted – that is, the way the true or fictitious stories told by the characters are wedged in between the present-day, real events – resembles the structure of The Canterbury Tales and Decameron. Moreover, the characters of Haunted often mention the holiday taken by Byron and his company by Lake Geneva, where they all agreed to write a horror story – and they all seem to identify with Byron and company. And as regards a couple of plot elements and the way sin/crime and punishment are connected, the novel resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: in Haunted, just like in Christie’s novel, the characters all decide for themselves that they leave their real life behind and trust their fate to complete strangers.
Despite all these parallels and similarities, Haunted is still original and not at all boring – because Palahniuk uses the possibilities inherent in his chosen narrative structure very well and he asks lots of intriguing questions. Reading this book, you might wonder – among other things – about the questions of what makes reality reality, and what makes fiction fiction, and how the environment shapes the way people perceive themselves. (Like I said, Haunted is set in an abandoned theater, and it seems that the setting forces the characters to imagine themselves as if they were the cast for a play, and makes them live their lives according to an unwritten script during the three months of their confinement.) And the fact that the characters – while living through their carefully constructed tragic present – share their true stories with one another can make you wonder how you construct reality from stories, and how you construct another person’s personality from the stories he chooses to tell. (And of course, we mustn’t forget that the real stories told by the characters can just as easily be fictitious stories, or the pumped-up or toned-down versions of the real stories – if that fits the purpose better.)
Haunted isn’t only interesting because of these questions, though. The stories told by the characters are also good and well-told. They are also very dark and frightening, they are full of tension, and they are deeply unsettling and depressing. Also – their effect doesn’t wither with re-reading. I read this book twice so far, and the second reading was just as enjoyable as the first one. In fact, I found some stories somewhat ridiculous the first time around (for example, „Civil Twilight”), but they filled me with dread and anxiety upon re-reading.
Besides all this, Haunted features Palahniuk’s trademark critical attitude and his smart and merciless remarks about consumer society. I vastly prefer Haunted to some of his other work, though, because here all the cutting observations are sprinkled moderately throughout the stories, and not hammered into my face by a single, perhaps too directly critical narrator.
This is a good, very consciously created and very enjoyable book. It’s a book that doesn’t need the kind of cheap advertising I often read about it (for example, about the number of people who fainted during Palahniuk’s public reading of one of the stories, „Guts”) because it can create its effect on its own. And I’m also pretty sure it’s not only memorable because of the extremely graphic and brutal stories it contains – it goes deeper than mere brutality.