Tuesday, 3 October 2017
From Orsk ‘til Dawn
by Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books 2014
I think Horrorstör was another one of those books I found by accident on Twitter. If social media is good for anything it’s getting great recommendations about films and books from like-minded people (also for initiating phone sex or, if you’re really lucky, eventually finding your life partner but, you know, those are other stories). The novel is by a guy called Grady Hendrix and, as is typical with a lot of Quirk books (such as their excellent Dracula’s Heir - An Interactive Mystery - reviewed here) it’s a book that I just couldn’t imagine working in any other format than print.
That’s because... and here’s the novelty value of this novel right here... the book is designed to look like an IKEA style catalogue. In fact, the entirety of the novel takes place in a branch (and surrounding car park) of a big chain store called Orsk which, as the writer explains soon enough, is an ‘all American’ furniture store in ‘Scandinavian drag’ that specialises in being a more cheaply produced version of IKEA but without letting on to the general public that they are really an American based company.
So the design reflects the look of a typical IKEA catalogue, starting off with a fold out plan of the store on the front inside cover (echoing a map in a fantasy novel too, I guess) and the best way to walk through it. This is followed by various ads, coupons and diagrams that you might find in a real store catalogue. There’s also a plan, of sorts, in the fold out back flap but, unless you want a spoiler, I would advise you not to look at that until after you’ve finished the novel. And, of course, everything is expressing the Orsk Ethos and there are website details and bar codes etc., built in as part of the design. Since I am a stickler for such things (anally retentive), I did actually type in the email address for the Orsk website into a browser and I can tell you that it redirects you straight to the Horrorstör page of Quirk books just in case... I dunno... in case you want to buy another copy for someone, I suppose. And, with all the detailed ‘customer experience’ blurb in these sections of the book, you often get the pun which I never got tired of throughout my whole time reading the book... to the effect of, if you have any questions... “just Orsk”.
Then the book settles down to an, admittedly squarer format, standard paperback design but with each chapter starting off with a big splash page diagram of a specific piece of ‘build it yourself’ Orsk furniture. As you progress through the book, the furniture diagrams get more unusually customised to something more horrible as the story progresses from what is essentially, at the start of the novel, a satirical and smart comedy which takes time to ridicule the poe faced seriousness of the IKEA style ‘shopping philosophy’ and various management style buzz words and customer service concepts... before shifting tonally into something which is more out and out horror as the novel continues. And it’s pretty good too, I’d have to say... with a few reservations.
So after these brief design shenanigans, the novel opens properly with that time honoured tradition of comparing both customers and employees alike to zombies. Yeah, the writer plays with this presumably because he embraces the idea, I guess, that if you’re going to have a horror novel set in an area principally built for shopping then you at least have to acknowledge the debt that ‘shopping horror’ owes to the late, great George A. Romero’s classic zombie sequel Dawn Of The Dead. I guess that’s just a given. As it happens, though, anybody expecting a zombie novel needs to shift their expectations because that’s not what we have here. In fact, if I were to compare the novel to anything else in the horror genre, it would be the Silent Hill video games and movies, I think (one of which is reviewed here).
However, whatever you are expecting from it, this book is not just a novelty idea which creates expectations of zombie horror... it’s actually a very well written, pretty funny at times, intelligent piece of satire. In fact, the writing style is sheer Douglas Coupland, if I were going to compare the writer to anybody else... probably unfair but I suspect if you like Coupland’s prose then you’ll probably not take long to get into Hendrix’s use of wordage here.
The little digs and pokes at the IKEA brand and, I suspect, quite a lot of other shops are quite wonderful too...
“Rather than follow everyone and walk right past Basil, Amy decided to go the long way. Defying the intentions of an entire think tank of retail psychologists, she walked backward through Orsk, starting at the rear (the checkout registers) and moving clockwise through its entire digestive tract towards its mouth (the Showroom entrance at the top of the escalator). Orsk was designed to movie customers counter-clockwise, keeping them in a state of retail hypnosis.”
... and I particularly enjoyed the little truths which come out about real life stores like IKEA, which I know everybody tends to get lost in. I once heard that if you just look backwards, everything makes sense and you can get out of there quicker... something I would recommend to all shoppers who don’t feel the need to be so forward thinking about furniture purchasing. The shop philosophy is quoted often by a ‘model employer’, a manager called Basil and the central heroine, Amy, is always quite healthily cynical of the brainwashing methods of the corporate mindset. I love that the way through the store is named by Orsk “The Bright And Shining Path” and I love that the clunky, build it yourself furniture can only be assembled by customers using their “Orsk Magic Tool” which is incompatible with screws on other brands of furniture. This actually reminded me a lot of what Apple has become these days... a company who has lost site of being in any way customer friendly and changes the various connections and leads to their stuff so they are incompatible with a) anybody else’s products and b) even their own slightly older products in a constant attempt at getting people to constantly upgrade and line Apple’s pockets with the usual IT world advances, often known more technically as... “money for old rope”.
I especially liked how, in the later passages of the book where the easy comedy of the first half has given way to a more brutal horror, Amy exploits a known design flaw in one of the shoddier cabinets made by Orsk to escape certain death. It’s not, however, all just satire of shopping... Hendrix also has little digs at a few other things, one of them being those stupid reality TV shows about ghost hunters. Two of the characters are trying to catch paranormal activity in the store after hours and their critique of the shows that do this kind of thing already is quite ‘on the nose’ in some ways. And I also love the circular nature of the writer’s observations when two of the characters get lost in the store and, rather than be just because the Orsk stores are designed like IKEA, it’s actually because a paranormal phenomena has manifested itself to make them lose their way but, for a while, they just assume it’s the inscrutable nature of The Bright And Shining Path that is leading them astray.
I said I had a couple of reservations and they are as follows.
Okay, so number one is a really weird grammatical thing where the writer uses the word apprehend in a passage in the second half of the book rather than the word comprehend, which is what I think he meant when you read the sentence back over. That one really grated because I tend to expect commercially published novels to be properly proof read (which, alas, most of them aren’t, these days).
The other slight problem I have is the tonal shift. The characters are such nicely drawn, comical characters that when the horror starts, it kinda doesn’t live up to the marvellous comedy writing in the first part of the book. Although it’s not always overtly gory, the book does have its moments and the brutal torture of some of the characters you are following seems a bit unnecessarily grim at times. However, even when the writer is throwing all this horrible stuff at the reader, the characters always manage to stay true to themselves (except when experiencing certain trance states of mind, which I guess is pretty much acceptable). So although some of the horror content like body constriction and eye gouging is pretty intense, the central protagonist, Amy, still manages to carry the story through on the weight of her fictional shoulders and, by the end of the book, she stays true to herself.
Other than these slight niggling problems, though, Horrorstör is a really nice piece of writing and I had a really good time with it. I especially liked the Epilogue where the story picks up a number of months later. The characters never seem to quite do what you think they’re going to do in this and the last little part of the narrative is a really nice touch. Ultimately, I’m not sure how regular readers of ‘horror fiction’ would do with this but I’m sure readers of standard, contemporary writers would enjoy this. One of the more enjoyable pieces of fiction I’ve read over the last few years and a solid, oak panelled recommendation from me.