Author: Grady Hendrix
Type of Book: Fiction, horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not too odd, per se, but it’s horror and it’s the week before Halloween so…
Availability: Published by Quirk Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I can be pretty rough on horror novels. I’m persnickety. I own that. But I also have come to understand that it is bad faith for me to use the same metrics of quality to discuss every genre of book I read. It’s not that I’ve come to expect so little from horror novels that I embrace anything that isn’t overt crap. Rather, I’ve come to understand that you cannot evaluate a cat using the same criteria one uses to evaluate a dog. They’re both pets but they’re still wholly different creatures and a cat would fare poorly if one expected it to herd sheep, guard the house or stay off the top of the refrigerator. I don’t regret the bad reviews – some savage – I’ve given to the horror genre thus far because even evaluating them as cats found them lacking. But I did realize that most horror often has a different goal from that of mainstream literature and I need to keep that goal in mind as I discuss horror novels.
That whole paragraph is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Horrorstör as a fun, at times silly, horror novel. This isn’t Joyce Carol Oates drifting in and out of genre as she engages in her unique brand of literary hypergraphia. It’s not Ray Bradbury. It’s a pleasant diversion with a clever concept and within those parameters this is a good book. Not a great book because pleasant diversions can still demand top-notch characters and fresh plots, but a good book because it’s entertaining – it’s a very quick read – and because sometimes having a clever-enough hook can make a book of this sort worthwhile.
Horrorstör is that book you’ve seen on bookstore shelves, the one that looks like a knock-off of an IKEA catalogue. It’s set in an IKEA-like furniture and house accessories store, called Orsk, and this location of Orsk seems to be stalked by some unspeakable evil that a handful of employees must battle in order to survive a night spent on the sales floor.
Quick synopsis: Amy, the heroine of this book, hates her life and her job at Orsk, but she is behind on rent and takes an overnight shift in order to try to make up the rent shortfall. She, another female employee called Ruth Anne and their boss, Basil, discover two other employees have remained inside the store without permission in an attempt to have a seance and contact the evil in the store, hoping to record the results and possibly land a reality show gig. They soon discover that the store harbors forces far worse than they initially imagined and that the store was built on the location of a former mental hospital run by a madman who has not let death prevent him from engaging in horrific and cruel experiments. Not going to spoil how it ends but it concludes in a manner that could result in a follow-up novel, sort of open-ended but the conflict involving Amy and Basil resolves well-enough to stave off annoyance that elements of the novel were not completely concluded.
The novel itself is visually appealing (with enormous font size, which is one of the reasons most readers will power through the book in a couple of hours) and at the beginning of each chapter there’s an ad for an Orsk product, like chairs, sofas, small clothing wardrobes and the like. The items become more sinister as the book goes on. A later promotion is the “INGALUTT,” which has the following product description:
Submit to the panic, fear, and helplessness of drowning, with the hope of death a distant dream. This elegantly designed INGALUTT hydrotherapy bath allows the user to suffer this stress again and again until the cure is complete. Available in night birch, natural maple, and gray oak.
If you are someone who enjoys this sort of thing, this will be the price of admission for this book. I for one like these sorts of silly ads and they remind me a bit of the clever ads one finds at the backs of Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” novels. But if this is not something that rings your bell, the rest of the book may fall a bit flat because the visual appeal and scene structure based on the IKEA parody are the backbone for this novel that, while amusing, is rather familiar in concept and execution.
The plot is a horror trope/cliche. We’ve visited and revisited the idea of past evil spilling into the present when a new building is built on the grounds of a terrible place in the past. Battle scene, jail, mental hospital, Indian burial ground – this is not anything new and since it isn’t fresh it’s hard to construct a novel using this sort of trope and hope to create the sort of terrifying tension that causes readers to keep turning the pages, wondering what will happen next. Unfortunately, Hendrix telegraphs this trope early enough in the book that by the time the two ghost hunting characters were introduced I deduced what was happening.
The characterization isn’t top notch but it isn’t terrible, either, as Hendrix does manage to give Basil, the store manager, and Ruth Anne, a middle-aged career retail employee, more depth than one expects with secondary characters. Amy, the protagonist, has some seriously unlikeable traits. She’s petulant and feels entitled to a better life because she had a cruddy childhood. She’s been unable to complete her education and is self-destructive, unable to see the positives in making the best of a situation that she cannot control yet really isn’t all that bad compared to other jobs. In an economy where she should feel grateful to have any sort of job, she feels working at Orsk is beneath her. She is chronically broke, is lonely, loathes her roommates mainly because she transfers the frustration of being unable to manage her life onto those around her. She hates Basil because he has zero sympathy for her and expects her to be an at least marginal employee. She sees him as a ridiculous company man yet can see herself through his eyes and knows he has every right to find her tiresome.
I sense that Hendrix gave Amy these loser-girl traits to prevent himself from using a far worse horror novel character, the Plucky, Quirky Heroine Who Saves the Day, and honestly I appreciate that. Amy in her current form is far less irritating than, say, the waif who is one of the main characters in Edgar Cantero’s enjoyable but very flawed The Supernatural Enhancements (which will be discussed here one day, I hope). Cantero’s heroine is named Niamh, and she’s sixteen or seventeen, tiny, has pink hair, is totally punk rock and is also totally mute. Amy, as tiresome as she often was, is a vastly better character, and if I think about it, her petulance permitted Hendrix to give her character a redemption arc that made her endearing at the end without venturing into the realm of the Fierce! Plucky! Weird Hair So You Know She’s Really Not Like Other Girls! heroine that absolutely craps up the genre these days.
Hendrix knows Amy is tiresome and that’s a point in his favor. Most horror writers don’t seem to get it when their female characters suck. We know Hendrix deliberately wrote Amy to be a whining, self-absorbed heroine because he permits the other characters to tell her off, which is, frankly, fun to read.
At one point Ruth Anne mentions that she has a kitchen like one of the models that Orsk sells. Amy’s response to this is predictably crappy.
Amy felt stupid. Of course Ruth Anne could afford a nice kitchen. She wasn’t drowning in loans for a college she’d dropped out of. She wasn’t shopping for clothes at Goodwill. She probably had retirement investments and her car wasn’t pissing oil all the time. As for Amy, she couldn’t even conceive of paying for something that cost more than a hundred dollars.
Ruth Anne unleashes on Amy when Amy refuses to perform a task that scares her.
“Listen to me, you spoiled child!”
Amy had never heard Ruth Anne talk this way. She didn’t know Ruth Anne could talk this way.
“Maybe you’ve got a safety net, but I don’t. I don’t have a family, I don’t have a lot of friends, and when I’m home at night, I usually spend my time doing crosswords and watching TV with Snoopy. You know who Snoopy is? He’s the stuffed dog I won at the Great Lakes Fair. Now, you know what I do have? This job. It pays for my rent, it gives me a family, it bought me a beautiful kitchen, and I’m not going to lose it because some little girl who thinks it’s her job to lip off all the time has the willies and won’t go upstairs to help her coworkers find the person sneaking around this store.”
“No, you’ve talked plenty tonight. Now it’s time for you to listen. The last time I checked you were twenty-four years old. Thirteen and angry is a long way back in your rearview mirror. You need to buckle up because it is time to toe the line and act like a grown-up woman. You don’t want to go out on the floor? Tough titty, said the kitty. I don’t want to go on the floor, either, but having a job is all about doing things you don’t want to do. That’s why they pay you money for it. Life doesn’t care what you want, other people don’t care what you want. All that matters is what you do. And right now, what you’re going to do is stand shoulder to shoulder with me and march out that door, find our friends, and help them deal with this situation. Tomorrow you can do whatever the heck you want, but I am going to keep my job. So get up, put some pepper in your pants, and let’s get moving.”
I didn’t really like Amy but I also didn’t hate her. She was mostly just a thing that moved the plot along. Which is troublesome when you have a novel this short that employs a plot device that some could call hackneyed. But she does have some growth, and develops a sense of solidarity with her fellow retail workers that distances her from her entitled attitudes. But bear in mind that this growth occurs in a plot-heavy book that is relatively short so it’s not as profound as it may seem in this description. This book has 243 pages, many of which are illustrations, using 14 to 16 point font and the plot covers a time frame less of than 24 hours. It’s a fast transformation.
You can tell when I find a book middling because I’m not inspired to go on at length. Excellence and crappiness make me verbose. But a book that has as many perks as it does flaws doesn’t lend itself well to my wordy discussions. If you find the notion of an evil infested Swedish-inspired furniture store fun, and like the use of meta in terms of ads for promotions of beds and torture devices, you’ll like this book. And, to be frank, sometimes you don’t want an intense read. Sometimes you just want a book wherein a mopey heroine saves lives using an allen wrench. For those times, Horrorstör will fit the bill.