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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Horrorstör - a novel by Grady Hendrix

Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire - spooky...but not as spooky as Ikea
There is real horror almost everywhere we look. Though I suppose it really depends on what one's definition of 'horror' is, indeed, we are all very different in how the aspects of that word affects us. For example, I'm sure that we all have a personal selection of demonic places and buildings which never fail to give us the heebee geebees, such as churches, a cabin in the woods, an empty mansion, a psychiatric hospital and the castle on the mountain top. No matter where they are, Amityville, Salem or The Overlook hotel, the list is an extensive one.

For me, there are certain places which tend to be just far more ordinary and everyday mundane places, the prospect of which never fail to fill me with cold dread when I know that they are near. For some reason, near the top of my 'all-time personal top ten hits of fear' are those furniture & lifestyle department stores. They scare and depress me in equal measure, especially IKEA, I bloody hate IKEA.

If you were to ask me why exactly I despise such places, well to be honest I would be at a loss to explain why. It's not as if I have some childhood memory of being lost on the maze of such a place, or that there's some other psychologically repressed experience which is responsible. No, I simply just despise them. The insipid quality of their products that we don't really need, the clever manipulative psychology of store layout design for optimum purchasing possibilities aimed at the unwitting consumer, the god-awful music that accompanies one around or maybe it's the smell of the calorie & salt infested food that awaits you at the end. It could be any of those reasons... There are probably more. I've often thought that there was something unworldly and evil that threatens in those places. I really have.

A couple of weeks ago, In what turned out to be another busy week at 5D HQ, I received an email request to read and review a brand new novel - Horrorstör. In all honesty I was about to respond with a polite "sorry, but no" as I was already in the midst of putting together two other blog pieces and so finding the time to read a book (yes, a full book, some of us do that sometimes) would pose something of a problem with my other plans of eating and sleeping. However, my dear reader person, I'm sure that you know me very well by now and that you know fine well I simply cannot resist something different and interesting - especially if I can combine it with my quite astonishing knack of self-absorbed musings.....hey don't knock it, it's a talent if nothing else.

This something different and interesting thing came in the form of a delightful haunted house story of a very contemporary nature, indeed, a very different kind of haunted house story from the usual fare, and a million miles from Amityville or The Overlook hotel.

As horror in some ways seems to becoming ever more mainstream (yes, Walking Dead people and characters with a particular American horror story, I'm looking at you) some of the classic sub-genres have been feeling the pinch, as it were. It could be argued (and I'm sure that there are plenty out there who would jump at the chance of arguing with me) that some of these genres, the haunted house theme is a prime example, have over time become stale and predictable in the eyes of the contemporary Zombie and Vampire horror audiences. Yes, yes I know that the humongously grossing Paranormal Activity series may disagree ever so slightly with this exquisite doctoralesque thesis - but found footage isn't exactly fresh and invigorating horror any more, is it?

In a nutshell, Horrorstör author Grady Hendrix takes this stale and predictable genre of horror and attempts to jump-start it into a fresh, contemporary setting........Retail. I kid ye not.

"It was a perfect system, precision-engineered to offer optimal retail functionality in all 112 Orsk locations across North America and in thirty-eight locations around the world.
But on the first Thursday of June at 7:30 am, at the Cuyahoga Orsk (Location #00108), this well-calibrated system came grinding to a halt....

.......Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Columbus, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring wardrobes, shattered Brooka glassware, and vandalized Liripip sofa beds—clearly, someone or something is up to no good.......

To unravel the mystery, five employees agree to spend a long dusk-till-dawn shift at the store, unaware of the darkness that awaits them.

As the night unfolds, the employees discover that Orsk was built on the site of a nineteenth-century prison whose warden believed that he could cure the minds of inmates using punishing physical labour and constant surveillance.  Is there a link between the old prison and the inexplicable activity in the store?  During the night the employees learn the true nature of their workplace—and they encounter horrors that defy imagination."

Courtesy of the fine people at Kew Publicity
A haunted house horror story set in a department retail store that has an uncanny (sic) resemblance to a certain chain of furnishing stores originating from Scandanavia - surely this cannot work? Well I have news for you, it does.....big time.

I'll talk about the plot and characterisation, and other such minimal essentials in just a moment, because I want to mention the the book's secret weapon - the way it is designed.

If anybody would have told me in advance of the concept of how the book was to be fashioned, namely to resemble as closely as possible a retail catalogue - complete with the requisite sections of product information and corporate speak - I would have said the idea was superficial novelty and would do nothing except distract the reader away from the plot. I would have been so wrong, because the packaging concept is genius - that's the only suitable word for it. 

The IKEA, sorry, ORSK catalogue-look has quite obviously had a huge number of hours spent working on the design, courtesy of Andie Reid. This attention to furniture store hell detail doesn't stop at the cunningly deceptive cover (which looks the epitome of suitably banal decor but in actuality hides some eerie signs) but also in the book's interior which is full of customer information maps, product order forms and examples of the company's operational ethos towards both customers and employees - "The hard work makes Orsk a family, and the hard work is free" being one of my favourite descents into corporate banality-speak.

Perhaps the greatest design success comes in the form of examples at the beginning of each chapter in selections of the truly awful and vapid styles of furniture (you know exactly what I mean) with their equally turgid and pompous names given to the various pieces. You know what? I may have stumbled onto one of the reasons why the likes of IKEA (and ORSK) give me the shaky chills to the extent that they do - it's those bloody pretentious Scandinavian names that probably don't mean anything at all in English - in fact, they are probably some form of Swedish in-joke at our expense. Yes that's right, that KJerroskip bookcase is actually called the 'tosspot' bookcase. They're laughing at us.
Depressing furniture to suit a depressing lifestyle.....kill me now

This makes for a beautifully genuine feel to the book as Reid’s cleverly authentic diagrams take centre throughout the story as it progresses along an increasingly break-kneck speed. The really clever element that is introduced is that as Horrorstör becomes ever more chilling and horrific, so do the designs as they slowly morph from the basic and depressingly unembelished furniture we are often faced with in these places to ever more elaborate devices of torture. It is an inspired book design.

However, I don't want you to be under the assumption that Horrorstör succeeds purely on the basis of the design, because it succeeds on a number of other levels too - and those areas tend to be pretty important as horror story-telling know, decent plot, genuine chills etc etc.

The easy paced writing at the beginning of the story provides a good amount of time to familiarise ourselves with the various members of Orsk 'scooby-gang'. One note of slight negativity in this area was the slightly insipid quality of the lead character, Amy whose personality I felt is slightly less developed and subsequently under written in terms of the empathy and connection we are supposed to feel for her in her plight. This happens not just as an employee of a retail store that she clearly despises, but also in the trials that await her when she confronts the real horror of her existence. 

Far more satisfyingly portrayed is the character of the extremely tense and uptight Basil, the corporate face of Orsk complete with his collection of David Brent-esque shallow and cliched phrases. Basil is given free rein to constantly bring elements of dry comedy to proceedings with his endless corporate platitudes to his staff, before and after the sinister events become apparent. For example, his straight-faced response of "That reveals a flawed understanding of Wardrobes" to Amy's mocking that she should start on her climb up promotion ladder at Wardrobes , is priceless.

Now this is furniture I can relate to!
The rest of the 'scooby gang', Ruth Anne together with the ghost-hunting wannabes of Matt and Trinity work very well together as the dialogue between the group is continuously punchily, humorous and at times, biting  - not only between the individuals, but in the thinly disguised commentary on the suffocating philosophy of retail corporations.

If the dialogue is at times punchy and bordering on rapid-fire, then so too becomes the plot, as the group spend the night in the store to investigate the problems of apparent vandalism that have been occurring in the wee small hours. Before we know it we are being transported upon a roller coaster of a ride as the story quickly becomes ever darker, sinister and for some, lethal. For the odd reader, this breakneck speed into the nights events may lead to a feeling that some sequences may be underdeveloped. However, I would disagree with such motives as the ever-more gruesome torture set pieces are written with more than enough style and gusto to satisfy most horror aficionados. 

I had my doubts that a concept such as Horrorstör (both in design and plot) could actually work, so i'm glad to say that I was wrong. For what we have here is a multi-layerd story which pokes fun at both retail superstores with their banal ethos but also at those of us that fall for the soulless nonsense of the products and the corporate principles behind them. Not only that, but some of the clever and manipulative psychological tricks that all retailers use are deftly considered - believe me, I've studied some of the methods that these business use and quite frankly they are mischievously clandestine and something which the general public are blissfully unaware just how they are being manipulated. Hendrix cleverly incorporates some of these techniques into the narrative which succeeds very nicely in adding a completely unexpected, and deliciously contemporary extra level of chill.

More than that though, Horrorstör is a thoroughly intelligent, enjoyable, unsettling and satisfyingly chilling slice of horror fiction that may well breathe new life into an ailing genre. I may well go back to The Overlook's far safer there than at Orsk.

About the author:  Grady Hendrix is a writer and journalist, and co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival. He once worked answering phones for a para-psychological research organisation, and currently works for Orsk, Manhatten.

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