The buzz about Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's new collection of linked short stories, Haunted, is the type that will either scare you off immediately or have you scratching at bookshop doors to get in the minute the book comes out. There's no in-between, especially not when the main thing people are saying about this collection is that one of the stories makes audiences at author readings pass out, weep and vomit.
Well, don't be scared. The story in question, Guts, is such an over-the-top grossout spectacular that it ends up being more funny than disturbing. And that's a good thing. Palahniuk is a funny guy. Haunted is less a collection of horror stories than a warped satire, a combination of Survivor, Fear Factor and that Exquisite Corpse game where each person contributes a paragraph to the same story. The characters are named after their personalities: Miss Sneezy, Agent Tattletale, Miss America, Comrade Snarky. They all saw the same ad for a three-month writer's retreat. It's every aspiring author's dream: escape your real life for a while, and there's nothing to stop you from creating a masterpiece. But the retreat turns out to be not quite as advertised.
Things begin to go wrong almost immediately. No one is allowed to leave the old theater where the retreat is being held. Someone breaks the glass in a window and finds impenetrable concrete behind it. Rebellious would-be authors sabotage the food supply, then the furnace. In an effort to force the directors to let her out, one character hacks off her ear with a knife. This not only fails to get her out but also inspires the rest of the retreat-goers to hack off bits of themselves in an ever more obsessive race to become the star of the inevitable movie of their lives. Sure, they want to be rescued but not until things get bad enough to make a really great story.
Meanwhile, they're all sort of doing what they came for: telling stories. Interspersed with the narrative about what's going on at the retreat are short stories, each supposedly written by one of the characters. (Never mind that all the stories sound like they're written by Chuck Palahniuk.) These get more brutal as the situation becomes increasingly dire. In one, a resuscitation dummy is put to not necessarily educational use by a police department. In another, a reporter down on his luck frames and kills a former child star to win a Pulitzer. In several of them, children go missing for horrific reasons.
Still, the scariest thing about the stories is the same thing that's always scary in a Palahniuk book the hints of evil lurking underneath a seemingly placid reality. He's an expert at inducing paranoia by rattling off details that make you question long-held assumptions. Are those people who stand in line at movie premieres actually paid to be there, just to make the movie seem more exciting? Can you kill someone with a foot massage? Are the homeless really just bored millionaires out slumming? Can you explode from eating too many freeze-dried dinners at once? It doesn't even matter if the answer to these questions is yes. Once you're presented with the question, you can't shake it. (After Fight Club, for example, will anyone ever order clam chowder in a restaurant again?) It haunts you. And that is pretty scary.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.