15 July 2010

Every Story is a Ghost (The Epigraph)

Haunted kicks off with an epigraph from Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”: “There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” I’ll probably delve more into the way that “Masque” informs the story, as well as Palahniuk’s take on Poe once we I get a little deeper into the book, but since we’re in Gothic territory, I want to delve into the past a little. Heck, let’s go all the way back to The Castle of Otranto, generally recognized as the first Gothic novel. Walpole incorporated all forms of supernatural elements which he figured might seem hokey to his then-modern audience, so he set the story in Italy of a couple of centuries back, believing this to be a time and place where such things might be more readily believed. The first edition of Otranto compounds this somewhat by including an introduction which states that the story is actually a translation of an old Italian manuscript written in the approximate era as that in which the story is set. I find it intriguing that the Gothic genre kicks off with this little bit of fraud, especially since it’s a mode of fiction that frequently makes use of hidden identities.

The full title of Haunted is Haunted: A Novel or Haunted: A Novel of Stories, either of which features a little bit of misrepresentation. Haunted did not begin as a novel, but as a collection of short stories. A framing narrative was added in order to take this disparate collection of stories, which do not appear to have been written around a central theme, and make a novel out of them. That narrative actually started out as a different story, a novella about critics isolating themselves from the world and then going slowly mad. It seems so very appropriate that a novel as concerned with stories as ghosts and vice versa features its own ghost of a story, one which actually lines up more closely with that epigraph. “The Masque of the Red Death” is the story of how in the midst of an epidemic of a very contagious and highly disease, Prince Prospero and his court lock themselves up in a palace and hold a masquerade ball. The masquerade features a collection of rooms, each designed around a color theme and with the goal of indulging the senses. All kind of outré and wild costumes and behavior are celebrated, but then someone walks in wearing a mask which reproduces the worst symptoms of the plague. This is too much for Prince Prospero who then (SPOILER WARNING) chases after the figure, only to find that it is the very plague itself in human form, and that he and his court have been trapped in with that which they had hoped to keep out. (Yes, that is a spoiler warning on a 150+ year old story, though if you haven’t already read “Masque,” I’m hoping this will serve as something of a wake-up call.)

In Palahniuk’s ghost of a story, the critics decide to isolate themselves from society because they have decided that they hate everything the culture that they review. They plan to set up their own community where they can create their own art, literature, etc. Yet because they are critics and not artists, they cannot create anything and so end up cannibalizing themselves and each other. (I’m tempted to stop here and ponder the irony of critics who dislike the very thing they center their careers around or question Palahniuk’s sharp dividing line between artists and critics. I think reading some reviews of Palahniuk’s Diary, especially that of Salon’s Laura Miller, will probably suffice to show what inspired Palahniuk to write that story.) As with “Masque,” a group of people hole themselves up hoping to escape something terrible in the outside and create their own idealized world only to find doom within that same enclosure they had believed would provide safety.

When discussing Haunted, Palahniuk sometimes talked about writing the sorts of "dark things Poe couldn't write about in his own time," which I confess I find a somewhat questionable notion. Though I'll have more to say on Poe later on, for now I wonder to what extent does a book itself serve as an author's escape from the threatening critics rampaging outside, and can a narrative trap itself by those strategies it had hoped would provide it with salvation?

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