A writers’ retreat turns out to be more hellish than its participants would have imagined.
The willing participants all answered an ad for a three-month retreat that would allow them to cut off all contact with the outside world (they all leave in a bus before dawn, telling no one), only to find themselves locked in an old theater with no way out and a limited supply of food. Their sort-of host for the retreat, Mr. Whittier, wants them to use their isolation to create some sort of masterpiece, invoking the Villa Diodati, where Lord Byron, Shelley, among others, produced their classics of gothic horror. It’s quickly obvious, however, that we’re far from the land of Shelley with this band of losers, who seem more interested in heightening their own suffering in order to have a better sell for the movie or memoir rights they will assuredly be offered once rescued. Palahniuk (Diary, 2003, etc.) ensures that we have little sympathy for the characters—known for the most part by the sarcastic noms de plume they give each other, like Comrade Snarky, Miss Sneezy and Chef Assassin—by showing how they continually sabotage themselves. The characters’ back-stories, which make up the bulk of the novel, also show them to be a uniformly selfish, grubby and, more often than not, murderous lot, so when the bloodletting starts, few tears will be shed. As usual, Palahniuk drops us right into a nasty, vile core of base desire where all good deeds are punished and nobody escapes unscathed (let’s just say that cannibalism pops up about a third of the way in, and things get worse from there on). And while a number of the stories here are ingenious, in a devilish sort of way, the constant barrage of wicked sadism soon palls.
Stomach-churning horror that takes a bit too much joy in its diabolic machinations.