Review of Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

by Marc Schuster

by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 416 pp., $24.95

Anyone who’s read Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Product Placement” will know immediately why I can say without reservation that Haunted is the best book ever written in the entire history of the universe. And I’m not just saying this because “Product Placement,” one of twenty-three short stories collected in Haunted and strung together with a creepy nod to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, follows the exploits of a professional chef who literally slices and dices any food critics who pan his work. Surely we’re all mature enough as readers to separate authors from their creations, and surely Palahniuk is writer enough to respectfully disregard even the most pitiless of book reviews without resorting to violence. At the same time, however, one must wonder while reading Haunted where those in Palahniuk’s universe draw the line between author and character.

The conceit of this collection is that twenty or so aspiring writers have (more or less voluntarily) become trapped in an abandoned theater in an effort to make their otherwise dreary lives the stuff of made-for-TV movies. Lopping off their own extremities at every turn, the writers pass their days imagining the royalties that will start pouring in once they sell to the highest bidder their stories of surviving the evil machinations of their alleged captor. What these fictitious writers fail to recognize, however, is that their own pasts provide the fodder for far more interesting tales than anything that takes place within the confines of the abandoned theater. Indeed, if there is a flaw in Haunted, it is that the narrative device Palahniuk has invented to string his stories together seems somewhat contrived, and this sense of contrivance limits the parts of the collection from adding up to something greater than the whole.

Synergistic concerns aside, however, the collection provides a stringent critique of American consumerism and our culture’s obsession with celebrity: the writers in Haunted are so intent upon becoming literary figures that they spend little time actually writing. Hence it’s only natural that while the first-person narrator clearly identifies herself as part of the group, the reader never knows who, exactly, is providing the material that weaves the collection into a unified whole. Likewise, it’s only natural that despite the conceit of this collection—-twenty writers telling their own stories of shock and horror—-all of the storytelling occurs in Palahniuk’s distinctive voice. The writers are so busy honing their celebrity personas, the narrative seems to tell us, that Palahniuk must take up the slack and write their stories for them.

Haunted provides a glimpse of Palahniuk’s imagination at its most visceral: a prolapsed colon, an aborted fetus and a hodgepodge of amputated fingers and toes are just some of the objects that dot the landscape of the author’s twisted imagination, so readers familiar with the author’s earlier works like Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby will not be disappointed with this collection. At the same time, however, Haunted ups the ante in regard to Palahniuk’s seeming obsession with the complex relationship between storytellers and society. If, as this collection implies, the majority of today’s up and coming storytellers have, indeed, become fixated with celebrity at the expense of their craft, then the art of storytelling itself will soon become the ghost that haunts both memory and imagination. Thus while Palahniuk’s grasp sometimes exceeds his reach in this collection, Haunted remains an important work and is indeed worthy of further study.

Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7

Marc Schuster teaches English at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in Redivider, Weird Tales and Philadelphia Stories.