The idea of using horror films to satirize consumer culture isn’t entirely original. George Romero set his film “Dawn of the Dead” in a mall to suggest that shopping turns us into mindless zombies. Grady Hendrix updates the concept in his mash-up, paranormal novel “Horrorstör,” stepping into Stephen King’s chilly, undead-strewn waters by setting his sendup in Orsk, a fictional “all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag, offering well-designed lifestyles at below-Ikea prices.”
A journalist and short story writer, Hendrix begins “Horrorstör” promisingly enough. The story largely follows the fate of Amy, a smart-mouthed, disgruntled worker bee at Orsk location #00108, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the events unfold. “One of the many benefits of working at Orsk is the opportunity to interact with customers from all different walks of life,” Amy deadpans, while giving trainees a tour. “Including the sorts of people who change dirty diapers on expensive sofas.”
While the third-person narration stays close to Amy, the other character we get to know is her do-gooding supervisor, Basil, who dutifully drinks the company Kool-Aid and constantly spouts managerial doublespeak such as “Core Values” and “See Something, Say Something.’’
To better lampoon the store’s cheery, home-improvement-equals-self-improvement shopping ethos, the novel’s very design resembles an Ikea product catalog. There’s the friendly “How to Visit the Orsk Showroom” map on the inside flap, catalog verbiage like “Choose . . . YOURSELF!” and “Assemble . . . YOURSELF!” and minimalist blueprint-like designs of faux Swedish-sounding products.
When it appears someone is vandalizing the premises, Basil coerces Amy and a coworker named Ruth Anne to work a night-shift stakeout to catch the intruder. They’re joined by two more “store partners”: Matt, who knows this location was built on an abandoned prison ruled by a demented warden, and Trinity, who conveniently happens to be an amateur ghost hunter. As the quintet navigates Orsk’s maze, Living Rooms and Sofas to Storage Solutions, “a digestive tract . . . designed to move customers counterclockwise, keeping them in a state of retail hypnosis,” the spooky antics begin. “Wait, we’re splitting up?” Ruth Anne asks. “It’s starting to feel like an episode of ‘Scooby-Doo,’ ” Basil complains.
The first half of this Halloween-themed pastiche reads like part “The Office,” part “The Walking Dead.”
But by the book’s second half, the sharp workplace parody disappears, and the tone shifts to horror mode. The protagonists’ iPhones run out of batteries. They are picked off one by one in a subterranean lair. The author relies on well-written but fairly standard blood-and-guts descriptions and expected tropes — a chase by ghouls, psychic torment from a mad preacher, getting nailed into an Orsk wardrobe-like coffin called “Liripip.”
Why do all supernatural foes emerge from mist and ectoplasm, and speak like articulate madmen with 19th-century diction? Why do evil corporations choose haunted sites for their buildings? They will never learn.
Not that “Horrorstör” doesn’t have its moments. The images of Ikea-like products reimagined as torture devices is dead-on fun. There’s the “Kraanjk,” a crank turned eternally by its victims, and a wheeled stretcher called “Gurnë.”
Hendrix also gets in his potshots. For example, in a bathroom stall, Amy finds graffiti scrawled under the toilet paper dispenser that reads: “Pull here for MFA Degree.’’ Too bad there’s not more commentary on the “scripted disorientation” and “programmed experience” of modern, big-box retail culture.
“Horrorstör” can be clever, but it’s also rote and soulless. Hendrix wants his novel to operate both as wry corporate workplace satire and heart-thudding supernatural thriller. But striking that balance is a tough zombie skull to crack, even by the most seasoned of novelists. Hendrix might have better subverted horror cliches, were it not for him so easily falling into their predictable tricks and traps. The message that we’re trapped like doomed zombies in retail labyrinths so we might as well shop till we drop dead, or undead, just doesn’t seem enough.Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com or on Twitter @ethanfreak.