We all come into the world more or less blank slates. We smile at what we smile at. Cry at what we cry at. Fear what (little) we fear. And then we stop being babies and start freaking out about things all the time. In fact, when people tell those who are nervous or scared to stop being a baby, I’m not sure what the heck they mean. Babies are pretty simple. They want nourishment, comfort and sleep, and if they don’t get it, they cry. People who are afraid of the dark, afraid of what boogeymen might lie in their closet, those aren’t babies. Babies aren’t like that. Nah, as you get older, you start to fear the monsters and aliens and ghosts and serial killers you didn’t before because you hadn’t been told about them yet.
You grow up and get scared by things. Mortified. Disgusted. Then, slowly, you get desensitized. That’s why you can watch Uma Thurman pluck the eyeball out of someone’s face and crush it between her toes, why you yawn while the Hollywood slasher cuts open the jock on screen, why when the evening news says that the following footage may be disturbing to some viewers, you always know that YOU aren’t one of those viewers they’re talking about.
Maybe you’re not all that desensitized. Maybe you’re thinking, hey listen, buddy, don’t try to tell me what does or doesn’t make me throw up into my mouth. You’re right, that’s your business.
Well, it turns out that I, at least, have built up more of a tolerance to the horrific and disgusting than I thought I had. This book tested that. Palahniuk pushed the envelope. What in God’s name did I just read? I can tell you the basic structure of it: A group of people locked inside a theatre, dead set on making themselves as miserable and deprived as possible so that when they are found, apparently all brutally victimized, they will rise to fame and riches in the telling of their horrific ordeal to the world. Throughout their stay they tell each other stories, twenty-three in all. If the stuff that goes on inside their little prison, as depraved and sick as it is, doesn’t get your gorge rising, their stories just might.
This book has been sitting on my shelf since forever, but I finally picked it up for some summer reading. I lugged it all over the place, picking away at it in bits and pieces. In a school staff room I read (are you ready for this?) a story about a man having his lower intestine sucked out of his body cavity by the drain on the bottom of a swimming pool, the incident meticulously detailed. I squirmed in my seat reading it. I’m not even going to get into how it happened to the guy in the first place. I had to put the book down for a few seconds at one point. I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into by starting this thing. Then the chapter was over, the bell rang, and I promptly went to teach a class of smiling, bubbly, bright-eyed thirteen year-olds. Not a problem. The students, they would never ever have guessed the images I’d just had soldered into my mind’s eye. Oh yeah, I can play it cool. In the book’s afterword, Palahniuk talks about how every reading he’s done of that particular story, every single one, has resulted in audience members fainting.
Later, on an airplane, I’m reading stories about violent murders, mutilation, perverted machinations, extortion and the ruination of lives, among others, and I flop the book down from time to time, smile at the stewardesses and ask for coffee with cream. Eat a sandwich. Go back to reading. Munch, munch, munch. Reading of acts that demean the human body, the human spirit. Stories that look into a profound darkness settled in the murky dredges of the human soul. And I’m thinking: great, the sandwich doesn’t have mayo. I can’t stand mayo.
On my vacation, I’m in my hotel room for some down time, reading about death camp atrocities, cannibalism, and things that you honestly would just have to read to understand, because me telling you the themes isn’t going to convey anything. Palahniuk is aspiring to do no less than design material that is as disturbing as possible. The imagination at work here is brilliant in its own way, and it’s dedicated, more or less, to telling us horror stories where the great terror is not ghosts and aliens, but people and the things around us in everyday life. I finish a few more stories in the hotel room, somewhat appalled and somewhat depressed, thinking they should have ruined my afternoon. But they don’t. Not in the least. A youth of burning through the scariest books I could get my hands on, of Hollywood movies and years of surfing the internet, have at least served to form a mental buffer to all this. My day isn’t affected an iota, really. I close the book and all the little worlds, the deranged characters inside of it, are trapped safely behind the cover.
But you know what this book is? It’s just what Palahniuk writes that he wanted it to be: “a trapdoor down into some dark place.” It’s the entrance to a cellar, and there are things in that cellar you realize that you probably didn’t ever want to see or know until you’ve seen and known them.
Still, at no point did I faint, or lose my appetite, or sit alone in a room hugging my knees to my chest, or even have nightmares (yet). Unintentionally I really have desensitized myself, and been desentsitized, to a point where I could stomach this, though it’s by far one of, if not the most, sensibility-violating works of fiction I’ve read. It’s the kind of book I want to crack open and read to a circle of good friends at some late-night gathering. These are the kinds of stories that will make adult eyes–the eyes of those who’ve outgrown ghosts and aliens–go wide in the gloom. Or make them laugh, or often as not just grossed out and queasy.
So if you think nothing can shock you, if you think nothing can disgust you, if you think you’ve seen and heard it all, go ahead and give Haunted a whirl, and enjoy. You insensitive monster.
Pages: 411 FoA Pages: 22,286 (The total number of pages reported on by Friends of Atticus)