Grady Hendrix (www.gradyhendrix.com)
Quirk Books (www.quirkbooks.com)
It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the other end.
The Cleveland, Ohio Orsk store has been losing money since it opened, sales a fraction of those in the furniture giant’s other stores, and staff are coming in to work every morning to broken, damaged and soiled products on the shop floor. The day before a consultancy team are due from Head Office, the store’s deputy manager, Basil, recruits Amy and Ruth Anne to do a special overnight shift, a security measure to ensure that nothing is amiss when the consultants arrive. It isn’t long before strange things start happening – graffiti appearing on the walls of the women’s bathroom, strange noises on the shop floor and a distinctly unpleasant smell pervading the whole building – and before the night is out, there will be worse horrors to come and this small group will learn what it truly means to be stuck in a dead end job.
You will be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Grady Hendrix’s exceptional novel is an Ikea catalogue (the splendid front cover gives way to a map of the store, and a home delivery order form before the story begins). Nor is it a zombie novel, despite the opening sentence, above. The novel’s setting is an Ikea rip-off, “the all-American furniture superstore in Scandanavian drag”, and anyone who has ever set foot inside one of Swedish colossus’s shops will recognise it instantly, from the guided shopping experience (“the Bright and Shining Path”), to the Market Floor and the self-service warehouse. Hendrix’s attention to detail is second-to-none here, and he has even gone as far as naming his own product lines (some, admittedly, with questionable names: the Tossurs treamill desk; Balsak candles; Magog bunk beds).
It’s a difficult book to categorise: part satire on modern working life – and, indeed, modern shopping life – part turn-on-all-the-lights horror, Hendrix never lets the reader get too comfortable with one emotion or the other, flitting from laugh-out-loud (really!) to spine-chilling horror with an ease that is difficult not to admire, even as you’re looking over your shoulder to make sure that wasn’t someone breathing on your neck. The unique narrative style helps to keep the reader engaged in what might, in the hands of a less humorous author, have been a sustained and bleak journey into madness with no redeeming features.
The bulk of Horrorstör covers a relatively short period of time – the fateful overnight shift – so the small cast, and the fact that we see everything exclusively through the eyes of Amy, help to make it a more intimate, engaging read. While the plot might sound like something from a second-rate teen slasher flick, this is far from the cast you might expect in such a film: Basil, a man who has worked his way out of a bad neighbourhood into a life dedicated to the company; Amy, slacker twenty-something who is fooling no-one with her claims that she won’t be working retail for the rest of her life; Ruth Anne, fifty-something bubbly blonde who lives for Orsk and whose only wish is to send her customers out the door with a smile on their faces. These three, and the other uninvited employees who find themselves in the store – Matt and Trinity – are beautifully-drawn, each of them someone we know, someone we’ve probably worked with at some point in our careers, caricatures that nevertheless feel comfortably real, despite the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves.
The backstory that comes to light as we progress through the story – and the night – is by no means original to Horrorstör, nor is it meant to be. This is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a twist in the location, so it’s no surprise when we learn that the land on which this Orsk store was built has something of a past.
“But ghosts only haunt houses[…]”
“This is a building with bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms,” Matt said. “If that’s your definition of a house, then Orsk is a house. ‘A Home for the Everyone.’”
Which is not to say that you’ve seen Horrorstör before. Sure, there are elements of The Office here; a tip of the hat to the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead, and a building that exhibits some of the same properties – and exudes some of the same ice-cold chill – as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but Grady Hendrix has produced something fresh, something original, something that will frighten even the most hardened fan of horror while, at the same time, making them laugh. If you’ve seen Ikea’s The Shining advertisement, you’ll begin to get some idea of just how creepy giant empty furniture shops can be; Horrorstör builds on this sense of wrongness to produce a haunting and disturbing masterpiece.
Horrorstör is a beautifully-presented piece, from the Ikea catalogue-like front cover to the detailed illustrations of the various furniture items that you’re likely to find on the Orsk Showroom floor, it is, like Reif Larsen’s The Select Works of T. S. Spivet, a complete package that works best when story and design are combined. A wonderfully-written haunted house story, it will keep you up late into the night, and make you think twice about nipping to the local Swedish furniture superstore for meatballs or another Billy bookcase. Approach with caution, but do not miss at any cost.