A Haunted Retreat

For a while, it looked like Chuck Palahniuk was a one trick pony. Every novel post Fight Club followed the formula – edgy first person narration, repetitive metaphors and hooks, maybe a big third act twist. Sure, there were some gems – Survivor and Choke – but a change was needed.

With Haunted he’s broken out of the mold. The premise is a writer’s retreat (inspired by Lord Byron and Mary Shelly’s horror-writing sabbatical on Lake Geneva). Twenty-three aspiring artists are assembled by Mr. Whittier, an old crippled man, and bussed into a crumbling underground theater. They’re locked in for three months – provided with plenty of food and free time to complete their masterpieces.

Of course with any novel of this type, things go horribly wrong. Guests begin to sabotage the retreat: flushing the freeze dried food, cutting the power lines and heating ducts – all in an attempt to heighten their experience, make it worthy of a bestseller.

The format of the book is interesting – a collection of short stories and poems detailing the sins of the twenty-three, wrapped in a thin narrative of their trials during the three months. Palahniuk is attempting to imply some wisdom about stories – one of his repeated lines: “Some stories you use up in the telling, others use you up.” Another character compares all the pain and violence on earth to a grindstone, polishing souls.

This is new territory for Palahniuk – he’s always been interested in the purpose of stories tangentially, but here he delves into the meta elements, the drive in all people. In a way, it weakens the narrative – we don’t have any protagonist to root for, no overarching conflict to overcome. Twenty-three characters are a bit too much to keep track of. As for the short stories themselves – some are horrifically great (Guts, Hot Potting, Obsolete) – others come off as just filler. And because of that, I’d say it’s a weaker novel then some of his previous efforts. But he’s taken a brave step, and for that I think it’s a good move. I’m look forward to his recently release Rant.

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