As quoted from Chuck Palahniuk in the afterword, “This is a book you wouldn’t want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into someplace dark. A place only you could go alone, when you opened the cover. Because only books have that power.”
The story kicks off with a Writer’s Retreat, which 17 aspiring authors have joined, under pen names like Saint Gut-Free, Reverend Godless, Chef Assassin, Baroness Frostbite, The Earl of Slander, Comrade Snarky, and Agent Tattletale. For three months, they have agreed to be cooped up in a place far away from the world and its distractions, so they can create their life’s masterpiece, be it in the form of a screenplay, poem or novel.
The author adopts an interesting and unique format in his novel. In each chapter, it gives an episode of what the characters are up to, followed by a poem written about a certain character, and lastly, a short story written by that character.
As the story proceeds, one finds out that almost all of the characters are eccentric, and has murdered someone to get there. It is not a typical horror story. There are no monsters or supernatural apparitions, like Frankenstein.
( a side note: Haunted is a fascinating parallel to the story of how, in the year 1816, a group of rich, bored people found themselves trapped in the now legendary Villa Diodati because of the weather. They, too, decided to write their own horror stories, and came up with two of the greatest classics of all time, Dracula and Frankenstein.)
Instead, the real horror revolves around ordinary objects like bowling balls which crush people like ants when dropped from a great height and gain momentum when rolling down steep slopes, kitchen knives that are used to chop food critics up into tiny pieces so all that’s left of them are dismembered limbs, foot massages that act as a form of black magic/ voodoo, anatomically correct dolls with razor blades stuffed up their privates, killer viruses that are carried by people and simply being around a carrier is enough to devastate an entire town…
There are four short stories which stood out the most to me, simply because they are too stomach churning, gruesome or upsetting.
Story 1, Guts by Saint Gut- Free : This is a compilation of 3 real life anecdotes of sexual acts gone horribly wrong. If you want the details, go read it and find out for yourself. It’s quite explicit actually.
I don’t know if Palahniuk relishes the task of painting such graphic scenarios and making people squirm, but you cannot deny that he is a master of his craft. Never will I forget that horrifying image of the boy trapped inside the pool, desperately struggling for air, with his intestines literally being pulled out of his butt, floating around him like a transparent serpent. It’s permanently branded into my mind.
Initially, I thought that this story was a by-product of Palahniuk’s warped imagination, and he was trying to push the envelope by spinning an outrageous and unforgettable tale. Imagine the look of disbelief on my face when I read the afterword and realized that these incidents had actually taken place in reality.
Another interesting fact- a grand total of 73 people FAINTED when the author read this tale in public at several conferences. I am not kidding you. It is unbelievable. That is how extreme this story is
Story 2, The Nightmare Box by Mrs Clark: I felt slightly unnerved after reading it. The story builds up, as you expect something awful, something so frightening beyond words that it drives people mad just by looking inside the box. Contrary to what I thought, it is revealed that the box offers you a glimpse of another reality that is devastatingly beautiful.
As quoted from the book, ‘What’s in the box is proof that what we call life isn’t. Our world is a dream. Infinitely fake. A nightmare. One look, and your life- your preening and struggle and worry- it’s all pointless. All your problems and love affairs. They’re an illusion.’
I read this and immediately thought of the quote from Sandman, ' The people in the city seem paper thin in the mist. They believe they are dancing to the music of their lives...But I think, like the puppets, each of us is pulled upon invisible strings, until the night comes, and we are put away.'
It’s a scary thought.
Story 3, Hot Potting by Baronness Frostbite: Picture yourself being outside on the coldest of winter nights in January. One misstep and you find yourself plunging into a hot springs pool hot enough to boil you alive, deep fry you till your skin is crispy and puckered as fried chicken, till you smell like bacon and your eyes are boiled white and staring. It is the worst form of death to wish on anyone and I still shudder when I think about it. I could go on, but I'll spare you the nauseating, gory details.
Story 4, Obsolete by Mr Whittier: A few astronauts are sent to explore planet Venus, and they find out that Venus is a version of the Garden of Eden, where no war, famine, economic crisis or suffering exists. In order to live there, you have to die and your soul then transcends up a spiritual dimension, from Earth to Venus. These astronauts then deliberately crashed their rocket.
The story depicts a scenario in the future when governments all over the world leap to action, urging people from entire cities, towns, villages to ' emigrate', which is a euphemism for death. Cyanide pills are sold in supermarkets. Families sit in their cars and breathe in carbon monoxide. People hold hands and jump off skyscrapers on New Year's Eve. Those who don't comply are gunned down, or nuclear bombed.
It's frightening to know that we have the tools to make this happen. As stated in the book ' Experts advised this was the only point in history when we could make mass emigration happen. We'd needed the space program to give us proof of the next life. We needed the mass media to take this proof around the world. We needed our weapons of mass destruction to ensure full compliance'.
Freaked me out quite a bit.
In true nihilistic fashion, Palahniuk crafts a tale that elicits disgust, grudging admiration, and much disapproval from cynical critics who are convinced that he is willing to pull out all the stops just to shock and awe.
But seeing as this is the first book I've read that is written by him, I was fascinated by his provocative and bold statements and writing style. At the heart of it all, he points out that the only things we have to be afraid of is ourselves. Beneath this civilized human facade, our hearts are black. Corrupt. Foul and rotting. WE are the true villains. Essentially, the novel is a satire of reality television. The characters create fictional villains, demonize the organizers of the retreat, sabotage the food and cut off the power, carve off their own toes and fingers, all in the name of sensationalizing their plight when they are found, thus gaining fame when they sell their story. It parodies how people today are so voyeuristic and narcissistic, and will stop at nothing just to have their fifteen minutes of fame in the spotlight.
He also points out that we love 'war and disease, and earthquakes. Oil spills. Serial killers. Terrorists. Suicide bombers. Dictators. Paedophiles. Global warming. Famine. Pollution.' As outrageous as these statements appear to be, you realize that he is actually right. We don't 'love' it in the literal sense, but we humans do thrive on drama and feed on tragedy, eagerly lapping it up and splash it on the front page news.
To end off, Haunted is definitely not for the faint hearted. It's going to make you cringe, and have your stomach churn, and have you question yourself, God, the society around you and the reality that you live in today.
Don't say I didn't warn you.