The New York Times calls it "ugly overkill." The Boston Globesays its author can "dream up truly retch-worthy scenarios" but "reveals too much." But if you ask said author, Fight Club creator Chuck Palahniuk, he'll tell you what you'd rather not believe -- that his new book, Haunted, is based largely on true stories. That includes "Guts," the wretched opening story that has thus far caused 69 people to faint at public readings.
"It's amazing how many are actually true stories I had to water down so people would believe them," Palahniuk tells New Times on the phone from a hotel in Beverly Hills. Palahniuk speaks in a relaxed, genial manner that betrays the unsettling topic of conversation -- the tale of a teenager whose intestines are sucked out by a pool drain while he is masturbating underwater. "'Guts' was based on a guy I met while researching a Sex Addicts Anonymous group. It's all true -- even the carrot guy."
You can probably guess where the carrot stick goes.
"Guts" is one of the book's 23 stories that, along with their corresponding poems, string together a narrative that's one part Canterbury Tales, one part Lord of the Flies, and 100 percent classic Palahniuk. The stories are told by the characters themselves -- a motley crew of fame-hungry writers on a retreat, the aim of which is to produce their best work possible. Needless to say, that doesn't happen. The so-called retreat consists of being holed up inside a dank, old theater for three months, suffering one disaster after another. The writers are quick to view their host -- the elderly, wheelchair-bound Mr. Whittier -- as the enemy. But the real enemy is their own self-destructive behavior, the details of which make Haunted Palahniuk's grisliest book yet.
Palahniuk views his new book as an antidote to its immediate predecessor, Diary. "The readers said Diary wasn't what they wanted, but the reviewers liked it," Palahniuk recalls. "Now, the readers are saying Haunted is fantastic, but the reviewers are saying it's too much."
Indeed, reading some of the reviews, you'd think Haunted is one big orgy of sadomasochistic debauchery -- and absolutely nothing else. Never mind the inventive life stories each character offers, such as Mr. Whittier's "Dog Years," in which the old man convinces bored housewives that he's really 18 and is dying of a rapid-aging disease; this garners him loads of presents, money, and sympathy sex. And don't forget "Exodus" by Director Denial, who tells of county child services investigators having sex with anatomically correct dolls of kids -- and the blood-curdling revenge wreaked by an overly righteous co-worker.
Disgusting? Sure. Disturbing? Well, no shit. But for Palahniuk, there's something more shocking to him than underwater chicken-choking. "What's shocking is people who live such sheltered lives they don't believe these stories could be real," he says. If Palahniuk shows us anything, it's that good fiction comes from what's already there. Sometimes, it just takes some guts to get through it.