When picking up any Chuck Palahniuk novel, it's enjoyable to turn first to the sick/funny library cataloging description. Here's what you get for the Portland writer's latest, Haunted: "1. Artists - Fiction. 2. Prisoners - Fiction. 3. Torture victims - Fiction. 4. Social Isolation - Fiction." Sounds like family fun, doesn't it?
Too bad the neutral tone of these data headings can't describe the various delights contained within. Especially pleasurable is the novel's structure, as Haunted "quilts" independently strong short stories, character-illuminating poems, and a connecting thread of narrative from the point of view of a character readers never meet. This character observes and takes notes in the ornate, crumbling theater where an ostensible writers' retreat takes place, and it's this continuous narrative that highlights Palahniuk's signature prose style. At times, the writer's broken sentences and aphorisms on the utter bleakness of human existence can grate on the eyes (particularly for the reader familiar with several of his books), but on second glance, the conversational authenticity and the ballsy beauty of these single-paragraph statements approach the undeniable truths of Oscar Wilde's bons mots.
Palahniuk's cult status is deserved, if only as a masterful sculptor of characters. Haunted gives us 19 people (and one cat) who are at once cartoony and archetypal, as unbalanced and outrageous as Greek gods, yet still as real as the peeling paint on a white picket fence. These storytellers have been damaged by society and have reached the end of the line, with only the fantasy of breaking down in tears on daytime television talk shows to sustain them. Each suffers in mind-crawlingly awful ways (particularly, the saga of Saint Gut-Free will put you off your feed for a while), but their most profound pain is always brought on by themselves. These characters fantasize, not just about escape from their oppressively grand prison, but also from the dullness, fear and emptiness of their lives outside. This desperation, combined with good old-fashioned American competitive spirit, drives them to commit ever-escalating acts of paranoia and brutality.
Directly referencing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Poe's Masque of the Red Death, Palahniuk uses these Gothic frameworks to build a monster of medical nightmares, masturbatory atrocities, art crimes, the dark side of the New Age, product placement, and the relentless pursuit of fame and money as a paltry substitute for self-worth. The threads of these stories are laughable, poignant and repellent, because they are so recognizable. Haunted is not traditional horror, but it does get to the heart of the finest examples of the genre, focusing on people like us who, once we are stripped of control, display our fear of the ghosts of regret and shame, spooked by the guilt we all carry inside.
Oh, and blood. Haunted offers that. Lots and lots of blood.
Jemiah Jefferson is a Portland writer whose books include Fiend, Wounds, Voice of the Blood and ST*RF*CK*NG.
By Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, 416 pages, $24.95)