Sunday, January 11, 2015



          I'll admit it, I'm afraid to write fiction. There are a lot of things that make me utterly petrified to try and write a story, or I'll stop midway through a paragraph to ask myself "Where is this going?", or I'll have some memory from three years ago that'll make me close the window and have a minor panic attack. But there's one fear that tonight stands tall above any others, and that's the fear that someday I will write a book like this one. A book that constantly and unsubtly winks at the audience, a book with so many good flourishes that ultimately doesn't cross the finish line because it tries a little too hard to be clever. It's kind of a problem with authors in recent's not enough to write a good story, but they have to let people know how brilliant they are at the same time. 

                            And what really gets up me about this is that Horrorstor is actually, when it's not occasionally trying to nudge the reader here and there, a pretty good book. The setting is unique, the atmosphere of an empty retail store at night where weird things go on is something that's been explored but not often enough that it's a cliche, the cast is well rounded, and when the frightening parts of the book actually kick in full-throttle, it's pretty unnerving. But for every unnerving moment or cool scene or neat idea, there's just that smirk, that desire the book has for the reader to get its jokes, to be "in on it". It's a desire the book doesn't really need, and it's one that doesn't completely work in its favor. When it forgets it's supposed to be a clever book, it actually is a pretty innovative and clever book, but when it decides to go that extra mile and be about as subtle as a brick to the nose.

But more, as always, below.

"Scratch any rebel and you'll find a father's credit card underneath"
- Amy

                       Horrorstor is the story of Orsk, an IKEA* knockoff located in Cuyahoga, Ohio. As the book opens (complete with fake Ikea-catalog touches like an order form and store map that stay ever so slightly ominous), the Cuyahoga store is underperforming. It has also seen its card-reader destroyed, its escalator stuck running in the wrong direction, and vandals smear poop all over a sofa in the showroom. Among the numerous "partners" heading in for work is Amy, a young woman with an antagonistic attitude who just wants to keep her head down, do her job, and get enough money to pay her roommates the six hundred dollars she owes them. Amy tries to get through her day despite run-ins with mysterious text messages reading "HELP", bearded rebel-without-a-cause Matt, the unusual and spiritual Trinity, the near-messianic checkout clerk Ruth Anne, and her zealous store manager, Basil. Unfortunately, Basil is waiting at her post, ready to try and inspire her to reach for further heights at Orsk. But with his annoying quasi-religious style of management, Basil takes Amy aside and gives her an interesting proposition: A closing-to-opening shift, double overtime, in cash. 

                       Someone has been breaking into the Orsk store at night to vandalize the carefully laid-out showroom sets. Someone has been leaving a mess for the day crew every night, possibly after closing. Shattering glasses. And while Loss Prevention has cameras placed all over the store, they don't ever seem to catch anything, possibly because the store's night-time lighting actually interferes with the camera feeds. So Basil enlists Ruth Anne and Amy to help him patrol the store at night, hoping to catch the culprit before the big meeting and walkthrough with Corporate the next day. The three of them spread out through the elegantly-designed showroom, sure that they will find the culprit and successfully protect everyone's jobs. And, despite some minor hiccups to the plan, and someone having gummed the locks to Orsk's employee entrance, they seem to be getting off to a good start. 


                        Except Amy keeps finding more and more graffiti in the women's bathroom mentioning a "beehive" that people seem to be stuck in. Except the "HELP" texts are still coming freely. Except the TV in the breakroom keeps playing security camera footage following a mysterious man in a blue polo shirt that employees keep seeing out of the corner of their eye in the showroom. And while some of the strange noises can be explained when Matt and Trinity are discovered having sex on the bedroom set while ghost-hunting, what about the further disturbances?

                        The only thing that is clear is that something is with the employees here in Orsk. Something vile, something calculating, and something unnatural. And if the heroes want to escape with their above-minimum-wage lives intact, they may have to learn teamwork and responsibility the hard way. 

                       So I have to say, right off the bat, I don't normally commend a book on its design, but Grady Hendrix and his team have done a great job mimicking the right look. The book looks, from its outset, like an IKEA catalog with a cover featuring an ominous ghost peeking out through the modern-looking picture frames. Inside, there's the usual frontmatter, but all made to look like the front of the catalog for Orsk. In fact, Horrorstor commits as much as it can to looking like a catalog, save for the book's prose. The whole thing begins right after the title page, going right into the "product", with the first chapter. The chapter headings are product descriptions, all with weird names and information, gradually becoming creepier and creepier as the influence of whatever-it-is takes over more and more of the store. Eventually, the chapter headings cease to be repurposed functional objects and become flat-out torture devices, still described cheerily as part of the catalog. The backmatter and back cover of the book also aid with the tone, showing a bunch of coupons for the store and a much darker and creepier map, as well as the destroyed version of the living-room set from the cover. 

                      And the design also helps feed into the content fairly well. When the story reaches its pitch and the forces inside Orsk begin torturing the people inside, they use objects that are readily available to them inside the store: Wardrobes, treadmill desks, office chairs, and things like that. There's also a nice parallel between the store being built on a panopticon prison: a place ergonomically designed so it keeps everyone in its place under constant surveillance, and the Orsk store, a place ergonomically designed to keep employees where they belong and under surveillance while also enticing people to spend ridiculous amounts of money on flat-packed furniture. I thought it was also a nice touch that the various doors to nowhere and fake windows inside Orsk actually led to places when the supernatural incursions start. Hendrix made use of the environment and aesthetics of the book to really sell the concept and create a good atmosphere. And atmosphere is the center of every horror novel. It's something that gets kicked to the wayside far too often with them, too. Nightmarish imagery is not enough to sell a horror story. There needs to be a psychological aspect. And while it's perhaps cheating a little to make that psychological aspect the way the book is designed, I can't argue with the results. 

                          It also does a good job playing with haunted house tropes. Instead of just leaving the store, the characters first wind up putting themselves in a ridiculously precarious position, and can't leave because if they do, then their jobs (and basically their lives) are over. When they do call the emergency services and try to act with responsibility, the police (in a moment of black comedy) can't seem to find their way up the feeder road to get to Orsk, causing further and further confusion as the GPS apparently lists the address as invalid from two to seven AM. In fact, it's due to playing into the ghost tropes that the Orsk employees accidentally open a door the other side, allowing the ghosts through to cause further mayhem and fright. 

                          Finally, the characters are actually fairly engaging. There's a diverse cast in the book; Old, young, different races, different sexualities and viewpoints on life. And while any one of these people could be a caricature (and in fact, all of them start out that way), they take on new life and are actually interesting people. They inspire empathy. I found myself wanting Amy to just make her rent, and Basil to get back to his life in the outside world, and for Ruth Anne to get home in time for Real Housewives. While Matt and Trinity are somewhat underdeveloped, they still inspire at least some feelings towards them. You don't care as much, but you still care

                       But...there's just some parts of it that don't work. Hendrix nails the dumb corporate philosophy and silly slogans, and even during the crazier portions manages to create parallels subtly, but that subtlety is blown out of the water when he keeps making the parallels so obvious. There was a point when Amy passes a banner that she keeps passing throughout the story, only to find that it now says "work makes you free". I screamed "Seriously?!" at the top of my lungs, probably startling someone in another room. And if this were the only thing, the only trespass, that would be fine. But the parallels between "penitents" in the Cuyahoga Panopticon and employees at Orsk are already good enough, why belabor the issue by continually beating the reader over the head with the point? And while the chapter headings are interesting, even the torture devices, I'd have perhaps liked it a little better if maybe it kept a more subtle tone, giving innocent-looking devices and then revealing their true purpose in the description.

                        However, perhaps that's it. Perhaps I'm actually part of the target audience for the book, and what I think is Grady Hendrix being oh-so-clever is actually stuff I was meant to get, but react to badly. The book is excessively readable, and a lot of fun even just to look through. While I could have used more of the catalog gimmick (perhaps a supplimental Orsk Catalogue book?), I liked the plot and managed to read the book in a single sitting without stopping. You may get more out of it. You may get less out of it. Either way, I think it's worth your time. Get this out of the library first, but if you really want to buy it and have it to own, I can think of worse purchases to make**. 

In the meantime, I believe I'll figure out one of life's gnawing questions: Whether desks sell more when there's a fake computer on one. 

- Going, Going, Gone by Jack Womack
- Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban


*So apparently IKEA should be capitalized, because it's an acronym. Who knew?
**Most of them from Orsk.

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