The Horrorstör… The Horrorstör…

HorrorstorHorrorstör
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books; $14.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘We never stop. We never sleep. And now we’re in your home.’ That’s the promise of Orsk, the ‘IKEA knockoff’ which is the setting of Grady Hendrix’s new horror comedy novel. Or possibly it’s better described as horror satire. I should just ask Grady because, full disclosure, he’s a friend of mine (he’s also the only good thing about the TV version of Under the Dome). I was horrified by the scale of his talent back when we were Clarion classmates, and, this Halloween when I finally sat down to read Horrorstör, I was horrified anew by the sheer glee he takes in tormenting his characters.

Horrorstör is written with the kind of brutal efficiency I’ve come to expect from Grady. Or, you know, from serial killers. It’s a lean book and, much like the products offered by its ‘all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag’, it does what it has to do with deliberate minimalism. The novel pivots on a supernatural occurrence exactly halfway through and, up until then, the reader is grounded among characters and humorous jabs at American corporate culture. After the gear change, however, Horrorstör become a straight-up horrormövie (and Grady, as one of the directors of the New York Asian Film Festival, knows a little bit about movies).

His protagonist here is Amy, a rebellious (and heavily in-debt) college drop-out who is, along with the ‘committed and responsible’ Ruth Anne, recruited by overbearing manager Basil (‘I’ve been trained in retail crisis management!’) for a ‘secret overnight shift’ to find out how merchandise is being damaged each evening. For you see strange things are happening in this Ohio Orsk. Peculiar smells. Sightings of odd figures. It could be ghosts… or it could be the EM field of the store’s massive lighting grid making everyone think they’re seeing ghosts. Or it could simply be a homeless person hiding out in the store at night.

Already a dysfunctional group, Amy and company are joined by Trinity and Matt, amateur paranormal investigators and ‘the most annoying people in Orsk’. They have snuck along because this store is built on the old site of the ‘Cuyahoga Panopticon’, a prison which was part workhouse and part psycho religious torture palace. ‘Underneath the cells were three sub-basements where the penitents’ – as the warden called the prisoners – ‘worked in giant labyrinths full of mindless tasks designed to rewire their brains […] Just like Orsk’. The novel uses the prison as a kind of capitalist version of the old Indian graveyard horror movie cliché. ‘My partners grew fat off the labour of my penitents’, the spirt of the warden says as the crimes of the past spill over into the world of the characters. Because, spoiler alert, that happens in grimy, bloody, slasher flick fashion.

More than this, however, Horrorstör’s great strength is the manner in which it captures, indeed relies upon, the maze-like and manipulative store design one finds in places like IKEA (I remember trying to escape from one once myself; I didn’t encounter the floods of rats which Grady’s characters do, but it was still pretty traumatising). There’s a lot of talk here about ‘scripted disorientation’ cooked up by ‘retail psychologists’, and the way in which architecture is used to create ‘a sense of confusion and geographic despair’ lends itself well to the horror conventions of characters wandering in the dark, getting separated, and the uncanny sense of the familiar growing strange around them.

This is further reflected in the book’s design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski). Order forms, store maps, and small print relating to pricing and returns are scattered throughout this slightly oversized novel. Yet as the story progresses, these give way to the increasingly disturbing product descriptions and illustrations of torture devices which pepper the book in an oblique commentary on both the genre and on contemporary commodity fetishisation. This aspect of Horrorstör is more reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s irreverence in Generation X than, say, Marx’s seriousness in Critique of Political Economy, but that’s totally in keeping with the lightweight nature of Orsk’s crappy furniture (no disrespect to Mr. Coupland intended!).

A fast and fun read for its first half, Horrorstör becomes a Saw-esque ‘gallery of rotten and humiliated flesh’ as it barrels towards its conclusion. Its characters grow more substantial even as Orsk’s products are revealed to be more and more flimsy. Meanwhile, linking the drudgery of work at a big box store to a literally torturous ‘mill for the manufacture of lunatics’ casts the modern retail experience as a kind of horror in and of itself. This might not be the most ground-breaking idea but the novel sells it completely with the ghoulish prison warden declaring things like ‘Work is the whip that mortifies your failed flesh and shapes your sins into something more pleasing’. A great read for a long, dark Halloween night, someone should really think about developing Horrorstör into a TV show. Oh, wait…

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