Monday, September 21, 2015

Pahalniuk's Horror Novel "Haunted" is Terrible

I’ve never read a back cover like the one on ChuckPahalniuk’s novel “Haunted.” 

“… the author goes to work on you, pounding you until there is nothing left but a big bag of bones and blood and pain.”

“There are paragraphs here – entire pages, in fact – that are as disgusting as anything I’ve ever read.”

“bloodied by the profound horror of narcissism.”

The collection of blurbs reads like a critique of Cannibal Corpse lyrics.  As a lover of most things horrifying and gruesome (and a fan of some of Chuck P.’s other novels), I’m the target audience here. I fell for it, too — I snagged this book up at some second-hand store a few months back. But, unfortunately, this book is fucking garbage.

Look, I’m no prude. I despise taboo and I enjoy plenty of transgressive fiction. I love fucked up horror movies and I’m a big fan of some of the most gruesome and extreme examples of death metal and grindcore.  But, while Devourment’s album “Conceived in Sewage” is vile, it’s also fun, intense, meticulously constructed and artistic. “Haunted” is none of these. This novel is vile but it’s also lame and sophomoric.

Here’s the plot summary from the back jacket: “Haunted is a novel of twenty-three horrifying, hilarious, and stomach-churning stories. They’re told by people who have answered an ad for a writers’ retreat and unwittingly joined a ‘Survivor’-like scenario where the host withholds heat, power, and food. As the storytellers grow more desperate, their tales become more extreme, and they ruthlessly plot to make themselves the hero of the reality show that will surely be made from their plight.”

Basically, Pahalniuk’s novel is a series of tired riffs on the “Saw” movies. It’s a long, drawn-out masturbation session of overindulgent violence and a childish fascination with depravity and voyeurism. Any literary aspirations are drowned out by repetitive and stale storytelling.  Pahalniuk is crass for the sake of crassness, and the result is a hollow novel that lacks anything resembling literary value. Some may search for cultural critiques in this loose assemblage of stories, but the commentary on reality TV, sadism, violence and consumer culture sounds half-assed, and it’s overshadowed by shock-and-awe exuberance.

As far as the plot goes, a reclusive Mr. Whittier lures a bunch of depressed and aspiring writers to his mansion for a three-month retreat from the outside world. Mr. Whittier (a stand-in for the “Saw” dude), keeps the writers captive and forces them into a pit of self-mutilation and gore. “To create a race of masters from a race of slaves,” that’s Mr. Whittier’s supposed goal.

But, in order to make a captive torture story work, the writer have to lay out the physical aspects of the cage. The “Haunted” reader, though, gets no real information about the mansion or how exactly the writers are stuck there. Why can’t the captives jump out of windows or sneak through the fucking basement exit? Or break down the front door? Chuck P. can’t be bothered with these details, because there are descriptions of anuses and amputations to deal with.

I was hoping to find this book clever for its somewhat unique structure. Nope. The novel unfolds in groups of three. We get quick snippets of narration describing what’s happening in Mr. Whittier’s mansion. Then we get a poem from each of the captive writers. Then we get a story they wrote (some are decent, most are shitty). Some of these poems and stories tie together, loosely, some seem irrelevant and tacked on.

Amid the blood and guts, Chuck P. squeezes in some commentary on the lure of horror stories and the need to create demons in order to distance ourselves from them.

“That’s how a scary story works. It echoes some ancient fear. It recreates some forgotten terror. Something we’d like to think we’ve grown beyond. But it can still scare us to tears. It’s something you’d hope was healed.”

“When we die, these are the stories still on our lips. The stories we’ll only tell strangers, someplace private in the padded cell of midnight. These important stories, we rehearse them for years in our head but never tell. Those stories are ghosts, bringing people back from the dead. Just for a moment. For a visit. Every story is a ghost.”

I find some of these ideas interesting, but I wish he would’ve written an essay on horror stories instead. In an afterword, Chuck P. offers up a few thoughts about the purpose of gross and transgressive fiction. He writes: “There are places only books can go.” But mostly he spends the afterword bragging about how reading a short story contained in this novel has caused dozens of people to faint. Cool story, bro.
Oh well, at least the glow-in-the-dark cover looks spooky.   

After reading this book, I feel the need to pick up some H.P. Lovecraft to clear my mind with some quality horror.

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