Horrorstör (2014)

I hope the Halloween season has been good to everybody. Crazy props to all of my fellow bloggers who can work full time and still churn out new content like clockwork. I’m at the stage now where playing Destiny with my college buddies seems like too much of a commitment.

Horrorstör was a birthday gift from my sister, and if not for her I might have gone another few weeks without posting anything new. The book tells the story of Amy, a twenty-something college dropout working in an IKEA-ish furniture store called Orsk. Amy struggles with the kind of where’s-my-life-going apathy that anyone who’s worked in retail will find familiar. She seems to hate her job, and definitely hates her supervisor, Basil, an annoyingly earnest company man who truly believes in Orsk and its corporate culture. But when Basil taps Amy and another coworker, Ruth Anne, to stay overnight to identify the culprit behind some recent in-store vandalism, Amy agrees, wooed by the extra cash the gig offers. The three retail spelunkers (think of a better phrase, smart guy) are joined by hipster Matt and his sort-of girlfriend Trinity, fellow Orsk employees and aspiring cable-TV ghosthunters. Trinity and Matt are convinced that there’s paranormal activity afoot, and they rig the store with EMF detectors and enthuse about eventually landing a show on Bravo.

As you might guess, this being a horror novel (and this being a horror blog), weird stuff starts happening pretty quickly. After a trek across the sales floor in which space and time seem to bend around them, the intrepid retail associates catch their first “ghost” in the form of a homeless man named Carl who has been living in the store after hours. Carl’s presence would seem to explain most of the weird nighttime goings-on, but Trinity, not to be defeated, convinces the others to hold a seance to contact any lingering spiritual presences.

This is where things take a dramatic turn. Carl gets possessed, then violently kills himself in front of the others. It turns out that Orsk is built on the site of a former prison, and the ghost of the insane warden intends to cure the hapless Orsk employees of their sinful ways. The shift from happy-go-lucky indictment of retail to rather standard, violent horror is so quick that it feels almost like two separate novels. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is noticeable, and if you were expecting a silly horror-comedy romp, you should know that that’s not really what you get.

Author Grady Hendrix clearly banks on the novelty factor here. And it is novel: the physical book is made to look very much like an IKEA catalog, down to the blue and white line-drawings of furniture items at the start of each new chapter. It toes the line of gimmickiness without quite falling over it, thankfully, and the story is compelling enough on its own to keep the pages turning. Hendrix is a competent writer and has a good handle on the paradoxes of the retail experience, which is by turns soul-crushing and affirming (at least for those who fully buy into it). And the characters are believable and, if not exactly likeable (Trinity and Matt are as annoying as you’d imagine), they are certainly relatable.

Despite the apparent quirkiness of the whole thing, there’s nothing really funny here. It’s mocking US retail culture, but not in a genuinely comedic-parodic way. There are some jokes, and a lot of asides about consumer behaviors in retail environments that are sort of amusing but also somewhat depressing (because probably true). The funniest content comes from the format of the book, rather than the narrative, with its product descriptions, illustrations, and catalog-like dimensions and cover. The transition to all-out horror that happens after the seance is jarring, and it starts to feel very much like an early-2000s big-budget film. I’m thinking especially of the remake of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts: the ghosts in Orsk commit acts of extreme violence, much as those film ghosts did, and the descriptions of their “smudged” faces and the primary documents that reveal the warden’s crazy behavior strongly resemble that era of mainstream horror.

This is not my favorite type of horror. Something about ghosts who inflict physical torment has always turned me off. The novel practically begs for a Marilyn Manson soundtrack, and maybe an accompanying video by the Brothers Quay. But it is, nevertheless, a solid, well-written ghost story that’s worth a read, particularly if you’ve ever worked in retail.

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