Some may recognize Grady Hendrix as the former film critic who ran Variety’s superb Asian movie blog, Kaiju Shakedown. I bemoaned when Variety finally shuttered his corner of their site, but if I’d had any idea that closing that door would eventually lead to Hendrix opening the door to the fiction side of his career, I’d have sent them a bottle of whiskey, because Horrorstör is a must-have in this world.
Here’s the basic, Amazon-level pitch: Three employees of an Ikea-esque store called Orsk are tasked with working late one night in order to figure out who has been moving objects and leaving behind disgusting messes and weird graffiti in the middle of the night. They suspect it’s a homeless man or a weird shopper; we, knowing this is a book called Horrorstör, suspect it’s a ghost.
That’s an accurate description of the setup, but here’s an even better way to pitch it: Imagine if in the middle of the night, when no employees were around, Ikea turned into Silent Hill. Now imagine you were just some average nobody who hated their job at Ikea, were forced into working an overnight shift by your socially inept manager, and ended up having to fight your way out of the increasingly twisted hellscape that emerges within. That’s Horrorstör.
And I do mean increasingly twisted. Hendrix opens his novel by letting us get to know our main gal Amy, who is a totally normal, relatable woman who probably could have done something exciting in life if she put her heart into it, but who ended up doing nothing in a boring day job because that’s a whole lot easier. We get to meet her dorky manager, Basil, and the three other employees who wind up in the store after hours, and it leans in to a cheeky setup about how a suburban heaven like Ikea is really a bit of a nightmare on the inside, with all that it represents being a little soul-rotting at its core. And that’s amusing, but it’s pretty surface level stuff.
Hendrix knows this, though. He knows that simply saying, “What if an Ikea was haunted? Wouldn’t that be kinda funny and kinda freaky?” can only carry you so far. And so about half-way through the book, he cranks the horror knob to 11 and never dials it down. From then on it becomes a gripping, imaginative, subversive story that doesn’t necessarily zag when you think it’s going to zig, but it makes damn sure that each zag and zig is coated with razor wire and consequences.
But what’s particularly striking about Horrorstör is how contemporary of a horror story it is. These days I find horror to be largely voiceless. Most, be it a movie a show or a book, don’t exist in the moment. They have nothing to say about the world around us, they simply put people through the grinder to revel in the sausage getting made. But Hendrix isn’t that cynical. There’s a bolt of optimism that runs through Horrorstör as it tests the temerity of a young woman who has been disenfranchised in life purely of her own accord.
Amy is a typical millennial. She was told the future was bright, so she put on sunglasses because she was too cool to look into it. And now she’s stuck holding the bag on her own life because of it. She’s got no one else to truly blame, and so it’s either deal with the overwhelming horde around her or get swept away by the river of time. And the craziest thing about it all, is that once the shit really hits the fan, part of you (and Amy) starts to wonder if it might indeed be better for her to just fade away than fight to matter in the world. There’s actually a logic to letting her become complacent and just another dead-eyed worker bee.
Having you root for a hero one second only to later think “You know, the Warden of Hell she’s facing raises some good points…” is deceptively complex and clever writing, and it shows that Hendrix has what it takes to tell a horror story that will stand the test of time. It’s not just gory. It doesn’t just cash-in on a popular trend. Horrorstör gets inside your head and takes you to a world where this nightmare makes total sense. And like a trip to a real Ikea, it’s a beautiful, punishing hellscape I’d gladly submit myself to again.
Buy Horrorstör here. I recommend the paperback, which is shaped like an Ikea catalog and even has appropriate furniture product pages at the start of each chapter. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this book just flies by. I tore through it in two sittings, which is exceedingly rare for me these days.