In his new themed anthology Haunted, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk does have a point to make about the self-abasement of modern celebrity, and the current price and nature of fame. But getting to it involves slogging through a mountain of fanatically detailed descriptions of self-mutilation, suicide, murder, gruesome sex, even more gruesome masturbation, corpse desecration and decay, child molestation, cannibalism, and pyrrhic self-annihilation, all piled up to such extremes that it seems like Palahniuk is just double-daring himself to top each new vile degradation with something worse. At times, Haunted reads like a redux of the Marquis de Sade's repetitive grotesque-fest The 120 Days Of Sodom, with the one caveat that Palahniuk's characters are more inventive about their tortures, and more inclined to turn them on themselves than on others. At other times, it's more like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho: full of brilliantly polished ideas so thoroughly smeared with blood, bile, and feces that it's hard to see the shine.
Haunted's crowded opening chapter introduces 17 colorfully nicknamed characters on their way to a three-month writers' retreat. In theory, they're isolating themselves so they'll have time and clarity to write their masterpieces. But in practice, none of them contain any stories but their own ugly histories—bizarre Grand Guignol adventures that give them hidden reasons to hide from the world, or more often, from pursuit and prosecution. These stories emerge one by one, each preceded by a mood-setting free-verse poem about the storyteller. Between the stories and poems, a larger arc slowly builds, as the participants decide that reality sells better than fiction, especially if it's heavily fictionalized reality. Sabotaging their retreat and casting their hosts as captors, they set about creating a marketable reality-TV horror story starring themselves as the victims, and thereby victimizing themselves.
Conceptually, Haunted turns on a beautiful construction: Introduced under names like "Sister Vigilante" and "Chef Assassin," its characters come across as less than human. But even as their actions become more hyperbolically inhuman, both harder to buy and harder to stomach, their names and stories emerge, and their motives and limitations start making sense. Many of the stories themselves are similarly cleverly constructed, giving the book a fractal-like quality that lets it operate on many levels. And Palahniuk is as unique and colorful as ever, with his predilection for odd factoids and weird twists. But none of this makes the arbitrary deaths, the ludicrous behavior, or the pages upon pages about corpse-rot and vivisection any easier to deal with. Like his characters, Palahniuk sometimes seems to be operating under the presumption that he can never sink too low, or vomit up too much. Here's hoping he's wrong, for everyone's sake.