Published by Quirk Books on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Thrillers, Suspense
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Darkly humorous horror story, in the same vein as Cabin in the Woods., with a uniquely modern retail setting. Social commentary on corporate culture and consumerism. Best consumed in physical book form.
It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were barely the living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbors partying till 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges. But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work. (love that opening!)
The Cuyahoga County, Ohio location of Orsk, an “all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag, offering well-designed lifestyles at below-Ikea prices,” has been plagued with vandalism for six weeks. When the opening staff arrives every morning, they are greeted by broken mirrors, shredded mattresses, and couches that appear to have been smeared with feces. On the day of the couch incident, three employees stay overnight to patrol the store and hopefully catch the intruder who is sabotaging their store. The problem ends up being bigger and more dangerous than any of them could have expected!
I was mostly interested in Horrorstör both as an occasional IKEA visitor (which is really pretty hellish on weekends!) and a former graphic designer for large retailer. This book’s main claim to fame is its beautiful design, structured similarly to an IKEA catalog. The review at this link has some good pictures of the interior pages. I read it on the Kindle Voyage (e-reader, not a tablet), so I probably lost something by not reading it in physical format. A couple of the illustrations were hard to read because of a restrictive zoom feature, but I was able to read the text on most of the pictures. I really did appreciate the intricate detail that went into the catalog concept; the book included a map, coupons, and an order form. Each chapter was separated by a catalog page with a product illustration and a humorous marketing blurb. The products became more twisted as the story escalated! The featured item also played a key part in the chapter, which I thought was a really fun detail.
Inside the store there were no windows, no skylights, no wall clocks, no way of telling the time or the temperature. Like a casino, Orsk existed in an eternal now.
The author also excelled at describing the store as a living, breathing entity: “Orsk was an enormous heart pumping 318 partners..through its ventricles in ceaseless circular flow.”, “…she walked backward through Orsk, starting at the rear (the checkout registers) and moving clockwise through its entire digestive tract toward its mouth (the Showroom entrance at the top of the escalator).”, “The store was stirring, restless, growing slowly. Emptied of people, Orsk felt dangerous.” Horrorstör was at its best when it was poking fun at corporate jargon and retail psychology. I thought it was clever that even the ubiquitous hex key played a role in the story!
The Cuyahoga Panopticon was a real place,” Matt said. “You’ve never heard of it?” “I don’t have a strong grasp of Ohio’s extraordinary history.” “It was a big deal back in the nineteenth century. The warden—Josiah Worth—was a total maniac. He believed that nonstop surveillance would ‘cure’ criminals. The prison was round, with a guardhouse in the center, so that the prisoners—he called them penitents—never knew if they were being watched. Zero privacy. It was called a panopticon. Underneath the cells were three sub-basements where the penitents worked. Giant labyrinths full of mindless tasks designed to rewire their brains.” He shrugged. “Just like Orsk…Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience. The Cuyahoga Panopticon was the same thing. The warden believed he could cure a criminal brain using forced labor, mindless repetition, and total surveillance. This was back when people believed that architecture could be designed to generate a psychological effect”
The author is not subtle about drawing parallels between working for a big corporation and imprisonment/being reprogrammed. View Spoiler »I especially liked the employee evaluation form contrasted with the prisoner evaluation form. « Hide Spoiler Given the theme of the book, I had to laugh when the Cuyahoga Panopticon came up! One of my old bosses told me there were once plans to remodel our office space to include a giant glass watchtower in the center, like a panopticon. It was probably just corporate urban legend, but I wouldn’t be 100% shocked if there was some truth to it! 😀
“This is crazy. Let’s leave this for the professionals.” “I am a professional,” Basil said. “This is what being a professional means. You can’t just walk away from a disaster and hope someone else cleans it up.”
I would have preferred more of the satirical elements, but they were overtaken by the horror aspects in the second half of the novel. I wish the story hadn’t gone the View Spoiler »paranormal route with the haunted store + gross-out tactics « Hide Spoiler. The horror part of my imagination isn’t very well-developed. At one point there was a seance and I had no clue what was going on, but I knew it was disgusting. The descriptions were grotesque, but the book was so lighthearted that I didn’t find the book very scary. As far as level of horror, It vaguely reminded me of Goosebumps! I could totally see it working out great as a movie, starring former SNL comedians like Kristen Wiig.
In a way, the chair was her friend. It freed her from all the illusions. It showed her the truth. She was alone. No one was there to help her. All her life she had run from the one thing she’d been born to do: wear a uniform and work a register. It was time to embrace her true nature. The problem was the liars. They said she could do anything she set her mind to, they told her she should shoot for the moon because if she missed she’d be among the stars, they made movies tricking her into thinking she could achieve heroic things. All lies. Because she was born to answer phones in call centers, to carry bags to customers’ cars, to punch a clock, to measure her life in smoke breaks. To think otherwise was insane. The chair didn’t lie to her. The chair cured her of madness. The chair showed her exactly what she was capable of, and that was nothing.
I just realized that I forgot to mention the characters, which is probably pretty telling! The characters are caricatures, but recognizable as real people that you may have worked with but weren’t very close to: the brainwashed-by-corporate store manager, the sarcastic employee who does the bare minimum, the positive employee who considers her coworkers her family, the flirty employee who has an odd obsession with the supernatural. I did like the Amy, the main character. She is in a rut and having a hard time seeing her way out. She has a good sense of humor, so it is hard not to root for her to get her life together. I also liked how Basil, the store manager, became more than just a corporate drone.
In the end, Amy thought, everything always comes down to those two choices: stay down or stand up.
I probably won’t be able to visit IKEA ever again, without feeling a little unsettled (scripted disorientation!)! Horrorstör is an average story made more interesting by its retail setting and unique design. It is not very deep or subtle, but it is a quick read and entertaining way to spend an evening. (Especially in October!)