Horrorstör is a horror/comedy novel that largely takes place over a single 24-hour period in an Orsk store. What’s an Orsk store? I’m so glad you orsked! Ha ha ha. Ha. As the book explicitly tells us, it’s an Ikea rip-off chain of big box furniture stores.
The Orsk “lifestyle” is complete with Scandinavian-sounding, but utter gibberish names for everything from your Brooka lounging sofa to your sensible Liripip wardrobes. Häagan-Daz, eat your heart out. And yes, the brand’s favorite phrase is ‘Got a Question? Just Orsk!’ Based on that alone, I know that I would stab my own eardrums out with a spare hex key wrench if I worked somewhere like this. Which is the author’s intent.
Horrorstör was written in 2014 by Grady Hendrix, a slowly but steadily rising star in quirky but thrilling horror novels. His 2016 book My Best Friend’s Exorcism is supposed to strike a similar balanced tone between satire and terror. I hope to pick it up in the new year.
To cut to the chase upfront: Your Intrepid Host highly recommends Horrorstör. It’s a relatively quick, well-paced read. If you’re intrigued by a book that has you chuckling on one paragraph, but with one turn of the page you’re flinching in terror, this is for you.
The book simultaneously functions as a story and an imaginary catalogue, featuring a new product description for every chapter. You are truly immersed into the imaginary world of Orsk—familiar and bland with satire sneaking in at the edges.
But as the store is usurped by malignant entities, so does the actual book in your hands begin to warp. This makes the book not merely a ‘book’ but an ‘experience’—a mirror of the intention of these big box stores.
From Hendrix’s own website, he holds steadfast to the Atmosphere-with-a-capital-A of Horrorstör:
“Horrorstör is designed to retain its luster and natural appearance over a lifetime of use. Pleasingly proportioned with French flaps and 248 individual, hand-crafted pages, this softcover indulgence may be the last home accessory you’ll ever need.”
Also the book takes place in my hometown of Cleveland, OH, so I arbitrarily award extra points.
When I first heard about Horrorstör, a horror story (or a horrorstöry if you will—har, har) set in a furniture retail joint, I was mildly concerned if it would be overtly similar to an old, semi-notorious SCP post. Fortunately, Horrorstör is very much its own thing. The perspective it takes is familiar yet fresh. There’s a mix of on-the-mark parody meets sickening terror.
Hendrix has described big box retail stores as offering a unique opportunity for ‘the ultimate haunted house.’ He makes an interesting point. Consider a space of 220,000 square feet, with no immediately accessible doors or windows. It is in fact designed to make it as much of a pain in the ass as possible to get out. At least, not without giving you ample opportunity to envision your life the Orsk way.
That’s a grim enough landscape on its own, let alone with unnatural spirits scurrying about among Kjërring shelves and Knäbble cabinets.
Our story focuses on five intrepid employees of Orsk Location #00108.
Our central protagonist is Amy, an Orsk employee who has hit a rut in life. We’ve all known and been people like Amy. Amy’s in a dead-end job, she’s barely making ends meet, she feels useless. What’s she gonna do about it? What are her ideas, aspirations, motivations for something better? …I’m sorry, I’m getting an “Error 404: Not Found” response. Find that frustrating? Yeah, try living it.
Fortunately…but mostly unfortunately, Amy is catapulted into a lifechanging event where abiding by the Orsk Core Values becomes the last of her worries.
Someone has been vandalizing the Orsk showroom floor at night. Frånjk dining tables thrown about. Mesonxic shelving units all disordered. Chaos! Madness!
…also employees keep finding messages that say ‘Help.’ …well that can’t be good.
Corporate inspectors are arriving at the start of business the next morning (Why what a convenient ticking clock for the plot!). Thus the very committed to the Orsk Way supervisor, Basil, corrals Amy and the sweet elder Ruth Ann into an overnight mission to catch the vandal.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, Dear Reader. This entire plot hinges on the idea that there are hours overnight during which no employees are in Orsk. However, those who have worked at big box stores like Target know that these kinds of properties always have employees loading/unloading/cleaning, 24/7.
Plus, you have to believe that somehow alternative security measures (actual security guards, cameras everywhere) wouldn’t be tried before having minimum wage employees play citizens’ arrest. But if you can just get over those stretches of imagination, the plot carries you along on quite the horrific romp—against your will in some ways.
The Scooby-Doo vs The Furniture Bandit mission is interrupted by the “spiritual” Trinity and “I could monetize this on YouTube” Matt, who believe the acts of vandalism are due to ghosts. See? Getting more like Scooby Doo by the minute!
Bad news: it is ghosts.
Worse news: Trinity has the group perform a séance to poke the ghosts.
Guys. Never poke the ghosts.
Turns out, this store was built on top of a historic prison. Uh oh. That historic prison was destroyed by a mad warden who worked his inmates to insanity / death. UH oh. And now thanks to séance shenanigans, that hellish world is invading ours. UH OH.
Our intrepid employees must now fight to survive as turn-of-the-century prison meets the infinite aisles of flat box hell of the new millennium.
The specter of the mad man in charge, Warden Worth, is intent on bringing the Orsk employees into his Beehive, as he calls the prison. In his Beehive, Warden Worth has meticulously designed sadistic, forced labor “treatments” to cure his charges of their deviant, disobedient ways.
You know how Black Philip tempts you with “Wouldst Thou Like to Live Deliciously?” Consider Warden Worth to be his polar opposite. Everything about him and his Beehive is absolutely opposed to the very concept of “delicious.”
I assume we don’t need to dive too deep into the pointed comparison here? And yes, it’s a cliched hyperbolic simile. Certainly the Beehive moniker is a little over the edge of “do you get it, Reader? Do ya?” But Hendrix makes the comparison work, drawing clear lines between the satirical hell of the Orsk showroom floor and the actual hell of the prison. We get as much of a feeling of surreal collision as we do ham-fisted comparison.
Consumerism is a pervasive, destructive force that has come to shape a ridiculous (and frightening) portion of our everyday lives. Probably the best longstanding horror stories about this concept are Dawn of the Dead, American Psycho (both the novel and the film), and They Live. Horrorstör comfortably fits in among these classics—and I hope it gains more attention over time.
In comparison to Dawn of the Dead’s warning re: the mall (“You’re hypnotized by this place! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison!”), Hendrix has aptly updated the setting: as malls die off in America, they are replaced by big box stores.
But while much of modern horror is about the experience of being a consumer, few focus on the horror of those truly ground up by the system: retail employees. Hendrix sets out specifically to highlight the experience of the “retail warriors who staff our big box stores.”
Not to use the phrase to death but “as is especially poignant for 2020…” Hasn’t the pandemic grossly exposed the exploitation and literal danger of working retail? Horrorstör touches on issues of work becoming your life; the power a workplace and employment can have over your wellbeing; how brands work to usurp our identities and daily life; the pointless cycle of continued product consumption; and the impact of architecture on psychology (which connects more to modern marketing techniques than you might think).
And as someone whose physical life has pretty much only existed in my wee 1BR apartment and the grocery store since March, boy did I connect with themes of feeling trapped.
I’m going to sidestep just slightly to highlight how critiques of capitalism and the use of horror imagery are intimately intertwined on a historic level. I think it helps to elevate the value of what Hendrix brings in this book. Thanks to this awesome article by Tyler Malone on LitHub, I learned how Karl Marx loved reading horror tales of his era—and in turn, he used horror metaphors in his rhetoric. He referenced sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, and cannibalism to compare against the evils of capitalism.
Now, am I going to go on a not-really-informed rant about capitalism? No. You can go to Reddit for that. But Horrorstör’s commentary on consumerism and its use of metaphor strike very closely to actual Marxist writings, and I think that’s neat.
As Marx says of the Capitalist: “he squeezes out labor-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life.”
…weird, that sounds just like the experience of American work culture AND the evil ghost warden.
The core horror of many monsters is their consumption—literally. These monsters are slaves to that urge to consume. They are mindless in their pursuit of endless hunger.
Hendrix here, whether intentional or not, brings our modern horror evils right back to Marx’s descriptions. The object of that mindlessness and consumption is not blood or brains, it is labor. Consider zombies of lore, who were not hungry hoards roaming the countryside for brains. The horror of the original zombie was being forced to perform labor, even in death—a cultural metaphor for the nightmare of slavery that plagued Haiti until its revolution.
All this praise and analysis said, I did find two things notably disappointing about the book:
1) While the world building of Orsk was immersive and fun, it was more of a gimmick. It winds up being particularly pointless because by the end, the Orsk store is replaced by a totally different made-up brand store. You built my loyalty, my sense of safety and sanity, into Orsk, and then it vanishes like it’s nothing?! It’s almost like brands that encourage associating your identity and lifestyle with a flimsy retail chain is ill-advised!
2) The real disappointment is that two characters just run off at one point into the depths of the store. …and that’s it. We do not see them again. We do not know their fates. While I’m fine with ambiguous endings to characters, I think it is key to still provide some brief moment that defines the finality of that character for the plot. I think it’s necessary to transfer some form of closure, even if the character turns out to be alive and rescue-able in the sequel. Instead the characters run off, and for the latter quarter of the book it’s like “er, are they coming back…?”
So that’s Horrorstör. There is an audiobook of it, narrated by Bronson Pinchot, which I assume was the publisher’s attempt to up the ‘unsettling’ factor as much as possible. There’s been talk back and forth of Horrorstör being made into a TV series or movie, but none of it has come to fruition yet.
In any event, we highly encourage you to check it out. You can pick it up at your local library or bookstore. Or, irony of ironies, you could buy a copy off of Amazon (as a part of the ‘experience’). Perhaps this holiday season you could gift it to the special retail worker in your life!