Haunted may very well be infamous, or at least, one of its short stories, Guts most assuredly is. If you’ve never heard of Guts, then you most likely won’t want to hear about it, and if you have heard of it, then you’ll know at least a little about its bizarre legacy. The public readings peppered with two or three people fainting during each. Also known as ‘The Guts Effect.’
I powered through Haunted in much the same way as I have powered through all the books I have bought and received in the past few days. It’s difficult to describe exactly what drew me to it in the first place, other than a curiosity instilled by a friend who explained Guts to me before English class last year. I’m still not sure why I didn’t hunt for it to begin with. Maybe I was a little scared of it.
In all honesty, I’m not so sure what I was scared of; Haunted didn’t disappoint, not by a long shot, but I got the sense, before I started reading it on Sunday night, that I would need to prepare myself for the worst. I had the expectation that whatever I had endured while reading American Psycho would pale in comparison to what Haunted was about to put me through. For someone who didn’t entirely know what to expect, I sure had my expectations.
Perhaps it was the reactions of other people that had read this novel that conditioned me; trying not to spoil it for myself, I still wanted to see what others had to say about it on Goodreads and elsewhere on the Internet. The bulk of what I found basically told me that everyone who had read this book was grossed out, with the exception of one or two strong-stomached reviewers. Fair enough. I have a strong stomach, I thought, or at least, I do in most senses. This isn’t something I need to harp on about, of course … I found myself significantly affected by American Psycho mostly for its brutality, so I expected to react in a similar way. I breathed in, out, in, out slowly before reading Guts, made sure I was lying down on the sofa (just in case), pillow behind my head, flicking through the pages with trembling hands. First comes Saint Gut-Free’s poem, and then … I prepare myself for the worst …
It wasn’t Guts that got me, though. Guts, I read through and genuinely wondered what all the fuss had been about. I’ve never tasted calamari in my life. It made me glad I don’t eat corn, though. When you stop and think about it, the scene in itself is horrific enough – if you’ve seen The Final Destination‘s swimming pool scene, you’re halfway there. If you haven’t, I’ll spare you the details; the words ‘pool filter’, ‘intestines’ and ‘prolapse’ should say enough. Maybe I was conditioned, long before reading this, by the tale about the guy who, imitating a Jackass stunt, ended up with a bird scarer attached to his intestines. It’s not as uncommon as it may seem.
Honestly, the two stories I can pinpoint as affecting me most while reading Haunted were Comrade Snarky’s tale, Speaking Bitterness, and The Baroness Frostbite’s Hot Potting, both for very different reasons. It’s difficult to fully explain why without spoiling the book should anyone want to read it, and without revealing rather too much about myself (more than I feel needs to be revealed right here on this blog). So I’ll say this: Speaking Bitterness disturbed me from a personal place, from personal experience. It was, however, a harsh warning, I felt, not so much directed at me, but I took it on. That out of what happened to the characters in this particular short story, a different kind of evil was born. It was a warning to me not to cross the line and become so mistrustful that I end up that way. Hot Potting on the other hand, was something a part of me dreaded reading, after finding out the basis for the story. The term itself yields numerous search results when typed into Google, but the story is based on a true event. This is the most disturbing part of it. It was the imagery, and attention to detail, that had me shaking; the juxtaposition of scientific fact and suffering. Hearing the details of how each condition affects the body, and then seeing the reaction of the person it is happening to. In case the title didn’t give it away, Hot Potting is, essentially, about being boiled alive in a hot spring. Another tale I heard from my friend, although after trying to digest Guts that morning (excuse the pun), this was a little beyond my capacity for fully understanding.
I suppose I should really take the time to explain Haunted’s concept. Seventeen writers answer an advertisement for an Artists’ Retreat, to abandon their lives for three months, leaving behind the distractions of real life to create their magnum opus. Their finest piece of work. There are many references to the Villa Diodati throughout, and rightly so, as the retreat, the old, abandoned theatre, acts as a modern-day equivalent. Twenty-three short stories and nineteen poems intersperse the main narrative, each of them told by one of the seventeen ‘writers’, as well as the organizer, Mr. Whittier, and his supposed assistant, Mrs. Clark. These stories explain each character’s nickname; each story becomes something of a confession, often referred to as the things the characters cannot tell anybody else, the reasons they want to disappear or the things they have done wrong.
The biggest problem with this retreat, however, is that human nature begins to set in. The writers, instead of, well, writing, each seek to become a martyr in some way or another; they plot to fake their suffering in order to gain celebrity status, telling a story of pain and hardship and getting rich while they do so. Without coordinating their plans for sabotage, however, things quickly begin to unravel.
There’s violence. Blood. Gore, Dismemberment. Cannibalism. All these terrible things that should, in theory, make them so much more loved and respected by the general public. A race develops to see who can become the most dishevelled before they are ‘rescued’. In the first week, every character (with the exception of Whittier and Clark) has managed to lop off some number of fingers and toes, or slit their nostrils, or starve themselves enough to look emaciated (Saint Gut-Free doing so effortlessly due to his six-inch intestine.) The thing that struck me immediately about this was the lengths that people will go to for some form of financial gain, and while there is always the sense that most of this is exaggerated, it’s a jarring thought. If these thoughts weren’t possible, if this was beyond consideration, it wouldn’t have made it into the book. It begs the question: what would you do in that situation? Something I hadn’t been forced to consider since I read Battle Royale. Would greed get the better of me, to the point that I would be happy to eat the flesh of someone I’d been living with?
It’s thoughts like these that cause Haunted to be … well … haunting. I doubt that this was the initial intention, of course, but they are thoughts that stay in my mind ‘long’ after reading (I finished the book early yesterday morning, instead of taking that jog I promised myself I would), alongside the other, more demure, urge to write my own confession. My own story. A short piece based around something terrible or humiliating I’ve done in the past. The problem is, I’m really not interesting enough to do it. The only thing left is to embellish, though this is something else I feel Palahniuk is getting at. While the stories have their basis in fact, there’s a feeling that each character may be exaggerating the finer points, making their story seem more shocking by comparison, in exactly the same way as they seek to make their suffering more terrible.
Haunted could easily stand alone as a series of short stories, but I don’t feel they would have as much of an impact. I don’t think that reading Ambition and Ritual and Dissertation as stories alone, rather than having the context of the characters being in the retreat, would have made me understand them enough. I know that my mind wouldn’t be buzzing for hours after with thoughts on the true meaning of Whittier’s second story, of what was inside the Nightmare Box (trying to comprehend the explanation given), as well as working to cover everything in my mind. The simple phrases that suddenly have that much more significance by the end. The loose ends that are only tied in the futility of the characters’ actions.
Of course it’s not uncommon for something from the mind of Palahniuk to be thought-provoking; in other respects, his work is what I consider to be white-knuckle, disturbing, genuinely pushing the boundaries of what people are prepared to hear or endure. Just as Palahniuk does this to his readers, his characters within Haunted do this to themselves. The one thing to bear in mind while reading, too, is that if a character did not immediately show their true colours, if we are not immediately aware of the sometimes terrible things they have done in the past, they gradually evolve into beings with much less humanity. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, or perhaps this in itself is a comment on ‘sheep mentality’ – again, forcing me to question, if someone was butchering an unconscious person in front of my eyes, with the intent to cook and eat their flesh, would I do something about it? In some ways, the possibility that nobody decides to do anything can come across as shocking – fortunately, I’ve learned not to expect too much from people.
These scenes are replayed several times over, starting rather early in the novel. Each terrible thing that happens is transformed by the writers, the characters, into something they can utilize. Watching a person die in front of them becomes a protracted hardship that they were forced to endure by Mr. Whittier and Mrs. Clark, whom they dub their ‘devils’, creating scenes of torture that never even existed.
I wasn’t entirely surprised that many reviewers don’t consider this Palahniuk’s strongest work; for me, however, it is a definite favourite. I’ll admit, now, that I found it difficult to get through at times, though these were not the times I expected. I know that a reread is not out of the question, but it isn’t something I feel I’d be forcing, considering that I’m actually quite looking forward to that point in time. The format gripped me as it forced me out of my comfort zone somewhat, the story not being linear due to it being, essentially, a collection of short stories interspersed by a narrative running parallel to it. I didn’t find this immensely hard to follow, if I’m being honest, and didn’t find that the short stories interjected throughout the main narrative detracted from the feel of the book at all; I’m not denying that it may be very easy to get confused if you put this down for, say, a week, and come back to it at some unspecified point, but the format worked well for the amount of time I put into reading this.
Similarly, I don’t regret reading this at all, which is another gripe some reviewers have had. The practice of throwing this book at the wall seems common enough. Putting it down and never revisiting this is another, although Palahniuk actually stated that he wanted to create something ‘you don’t want to keep next to your bed,’ so on this level, mission accomplished. I’m not one of those people, though. Haunted kept me glued to almost the same spot on the sofa for hours on end because I wasn’t about to just let myself forsake it. That would mean giving up. That would mean gambling away half of the experience for the sake of my own sanity (which I honestly don’t think I had much of to begin with), which hardly even seems like a gamble at all. No, Haunted is not Fight Club, just as it isn’t Snuff, either, but this is not a gripe by any means; the wonderful thing about it is that it is a reading experience in its own right, it doesn’t need the acclaim that Fight Club brought about. It stands on its own. My personal opinion is that you don’t need to have read any of Palahniuk’s other works to read Haunted … you just need to be aware of what you’re letting yourself in for.
The Final Summary:
Make sure you haven’t eaten anything before you read Guts, and that you haven’t got something in the oven while reading Hot Potting; you most likely will never look at a bowling ball in the same way again, and will start questioning if everyone with a cold is really carrying a life-threatening disease, but other than that, you’re good to go. Haunted is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish, the weak of stomach, but it is a worthwhile read if Palahniuk’s work interests you, or if you’re looking for something that will stay with you for a long time. Haunted is the trap door to dark places that Palahniuk wanted it to be, and in this sense, it succeeds on every level … if nothing else, it’s an effective warning to stay away from swimming pool circulation pumps, or at least not to sit on them.
A Few Links:
Haunted at The Cult [official Chuck Palahniuk Website]
‘Guts’ Short Story at The Cult [BE WARNED: not safe for work, school, children, the elderly, the squeamish, or … well, anyone who hasn’t bothered to read this review.]
‘Slumming’ Short Story at Randomhouse Publishing [BE WARNED: not as graphic as the above story, but caution is still advised.]
Haunted on Goodreads
Haunted on Amazon.com