I like to think that I’m not afraid of the dark. I prefer to sleep in total darkness, and if I can’t have that (and I really can’t, as my bedroom doesn’t have blackout curtains), I make-do with a blindfold over my eyes to simulate it as best as I can. Throw in some white noise (I prefer the sound of rain, but I’m happy with the sound of a television with the volume turned down low), a cold room, blankets, and my favourite pillows, and that is, in essence, my perfect idea of going to bed.
But I also like experiencing horror in the dark – and by “horror”, I mean horror novels. I find that, while horror movies and video games can scare the bejeezus out of me in broad daylight, novels don’t seem to do that. However, novels do tend to linger with me, whereas the fear generated by horror movies and video games lasts only as long as the movie does, or as long as I choose to play the game. This means that, when I judge a horror novel’s “scare factor”, I tend to base it on whether or not it scared me enough at night to force me to read it in broad daylight, followed by whether or not it kept me scared for a period of time after I finished the novel itself. If a novel can scare me enough to read it only in broad daylight, and linger in my mind for some days afterwards, then it is, most definitely, a very good horror novel.
This year, the only novel that has managed to do that was Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy. It was almost hot on the heels of the last novel of the trilogy – and, perhaps in the spirit of the approaching Halloween weekend – that I chose to pick up Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör.
The story starts out simply enough: something strange is going on at the Orsk store in Cuyahoga, Ohio. Employees come in during the day to find merchandise damaged or destroyed, but nothing’s showing up on the security cameras to indicate that there’s anything unusual going on. In order to get to the bottom of it, employees Amy and Ruth Anne, along with their manager, Basil, stay behind to put a stop to everything once and for all. Unfortunately, it turns out the problem runs much, much deeper than some people pulling a prank, and what starts out as a rather irregular investigation turns into something much, much more horrific and deadly.
What drew me to Horrorstör, at first, was the concept: a haunted house-esque story, but set in an IKEA clone. It doesn’t take much imagining to see how creepy big-box stores can look late at night – indeed, anyplace that looks welcoming and familiar by day generally tends to look eerie once the lights are off and the doors are locked – so I thought Hendrix was actually on to something. In fact, I rather wondered why no one before Hendrix had thought to take the same concept and play with it, considering how much potential the idea has. (Of course it’s possible that someone already has, and I just haven’t come across it yet.) I also liked the layout, which presented the novel as a catalog for the big-box store in the novel.
At first, the whole thing was rather charming, with some hints of satire in the form of its characters and the work environment as a whole. The character Amy, in particular, is used to point out the hidden truths about what it’s like to work in retail in a big-box store, as well as the kind of culture and educational and economic climate that forces people to work at such a job in the first place, even if they don’t want to. I liked these insights, especially since I generally like Amy’s wit and have some sympathy for her, as well.
However, towards the middle of the story, when the action really gets going and the satire of the first half of the novel veers wholly into horror, something gets lost along the way. I suppose I should have expected it, given that this is supposed to be a horror novel, after all, but I rather missed the satire of the first half, found myself wishing that it had gone on just a touch longer.
But I suppose I say that only because the horror part of the novel isn’t all that horrific – or at least, to me, it isn’t. I found this rather surprising, as I really, really like the idea of authors who play around with a specific environment, who can twist it around and around and make it the kind of creepy that lingers for days and days and can potentially shadow me in my dreams. Mark Danielewksi managed to do it in House of Leaves, playing around with the concept of the never-ending labyrinth in a house that was bigger on the inside that it was on the outside – a concept that had me looking behind furniture to make sure that there weren’t any doors that led to nowhere lurking behind them. VanderMeer also managed to do that in the Southern Reach Trilogy, but to greatest effect in Annihilation, turning the wild spaces of Area X into the key element behind his Lovecraftian nightmare of a series.
I was fully expecting Hendrix to do the same thing – in fact, the idea was all but served to the reader on a silver platter in the first few pages of the novel, with the maze-like map of the Orsk showroom, and then in the first third of the novel with several discussions about how architecture and layout can produce certain psychological effects. This was reinforced in the middle third, when the other characters begin to experience disorientation and the feeling that the rooms are actually changing in order to confuse them further, as if the structure itself is fighting against them.
That is, pretty much, the sort of thing I was expecting to find throughout the rest of the novel: some kind of explanation would be given, of course, perhaps a nice throwback to the way such companies, economic conditions, and so forth can “eat” people and turn them into nothing more than cogs in the system. And that is, in a way, what the reader gets: the whole storyline about the prison and the panopticon and the sadistic warden can indeed fit into that scheme. There was even a reference to “Arbeit macht frei”, the motto above the entrance gate to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, that I thought was an especially nice touch, enhancing the sense of fear to razor sharpness when one is aware of the history of Dachau and what it stood for during the time it was in operation.
But for all that the above would have been a spectacular thing to read about, and may have even deterred me from visiting the local furniture store for a good long while, I didn’t particularly care for how they were all used. I was hoping for something more subtle – something flitting at the edges of the characters’ vision, for instance, even as they disappeared or were found in horrific situations as the store ate them up one by one – but I wasn’t really expecting the warden and his ghostly victims to really make an appearance at all. I was expecting the building itself to do most of the “heavy lifting”, in terms of the scares, especially because of that labyrinthine layout that gave me chills just looking at it. I would have enjoyed it more if the area’s history had been used more lightly, functioning as a chill in the foundations, so to speak, instead of being placed front and centre as it was in the novel.
As a result, the whole thing wound up feeling like it should be something I would prefer to watch, or play, as opposed to simply read. The second half of the novel would work quite well as a movie, given the visuals involved, though perhaps some viewers might see it and think “Saw in IKEA” which would probably be off-putting for some. However, I think it would make a spectacular horror video game; I imagine that a great many people would enjoy playing it, especially if they are given no weapons and must either run, hide in the furniture, or die. If the developers could make it that the layout changed subtly from time to time, the same way the showroom’s layout seemed to change in the novel, then that would be even better.
But in doing so, I would be speaking of a hypothetical video game, not a novel – and I think that if I look at a story, and wished it existed in another format as opposed to the one I was currently experiencing it in, then there must be something wrong with the way the story is told to make it feel unsuited to its current medium. That, unfortunately, seems to be the case with this novel.
I did appreciate the ending, however. I like it that Amy and Basil didn’t give up on their friends, only to have the horror of what they left behind follow them elsewhere (as is so often the case in other horror novels, and movies, for that matter). I liked that they were willing to endure the horrors they’d escaped, if only because they felt responsible for those they’d left behind. It’s a nice touch of humanity that I didn’t expect (considering how the trope is usually to just leave them there and move on with one’s life), but I appreciated nevertheless.
Overall, Horrorstör is a potentially interesting and terrifying novel: the layout and concept are intriguing, and there is so much there that could have been used to ensure that people who read it don’t feel tempted to visit an IKEA or similar establishment anytime soon – or at least, to do so in broad daylight and with company. But while the thread of satire that runs through the novel is evident in the first part of the book, and runs throughout the rest of it before reemerging in the last few chapters, the horror aspect of it doesn’t feel very satisfying, at least to me. That part of the story feels like it would do better as a video game, or maybe a movie, but as a novel, I didn’t find it particularly frightening, even while reading it in ideal conditions (late at night while alone). If the same story had been presented as a video game, I think I would have found it much, much more fun. In fact, I think the author should consider taking this book and its concept to a video game developer and see about that; it would be a thoroughly enjoyable thing.
As a novel, however, I think it could have been more subtle, with fear being generated without once showing the “monster” at all except in brief glimpses. The mind, after all, does a fine job of escalating terror on its own with just a few nudges and hints – mine, in particular, appears to do a spectacular job of scaring me just fine even without the help of graphic visuals to lead the way. So I would have appreciated a little more subtlety, fewer visuals and more of the other senses – sound, perhaps, or smell, or even just describing the dizzying, sickening feeling of being utterly lost in a space one should know like the back of one’s hand. That’s scary enough, I think, without the need for everything else.
But I suppose others will enjoy the more overt horror, and if so, they will probably enjoy Hendrix’s different take on the haunted house – and maybe stay away from IKEA for a while yet.