Haunted is the most compulsive, not to mention repulsive, book I've read this year. It is horror fiction with brains, a satire of the intertwined cults of victimhood and celebrity, and a neat analysis of the storytelling impulse. It is funny, disgusting, and often sad. In other words: you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hurl.
Having answered a newspaper ad for a writer's retreat ("Abandon your life for three months"), a disparate group of people find themselves locked in a derelict theatre. Sensing an opportunity for celebrity, they set about exacerbating their already unpleasant circumstances, effectively writing the story of their ordeal as they experience it, in anticipation of cashing in once they are rescued. Meanwhile, they tell stories. Autobiographical stories, fantastic stories, stories that play out like urban myths. Stories that, for all their horror and desperation, constitute the heart and soul of the book.
Palahniuk isn't being pretentious when he calls Haunted "a novel of stories". The stories, and to a lesser extent the short poems that precede each tale, are the book. The bridging sections, in which an unamed narrator (or narrators?) tells the "real" story of life in the theatre, tend towards the jocular and cartoonish. The characters as depicted in these sections are at once insubstantial and larger-than-life. It is only through their stories that we gain access to their true psychology. The traditional critical admonishment to distinguish between a writer and his or her work is discarded. These writers are their stories, and their stories are Palahniuk's story.
Apart from being formally innovative, Haunted is also a disturbing, yet oddly fun, read. With few exceptions, the twenty-three stories are excellent. Palahniuk is often accused of covering similar ground in each book, but in fact his concerns are far broader than many contemporary novelists, and he refrains from providing easy answers, or blanket condemnations. The stories are varied in theme and tone - the very sick humour of "Guts", the pathos of "Post-Production", the chill of the contemporary werewolf story "Dissertation" - and the prose brisk and witty. What I really loved about Haunted is that it is addictive not only because of its gross-out factor, but also because it is intellectually provocative and amusing. That said, Haunted's brand of horror is very explicit, and a quick scan of online reviews reveals that pretty much everybody hates it except for me and the man from the Guardian. If you can take it, however, Haunted is a dead-set winner.