Among the many interesting things about Grady Hendrix is the fact that, before this Charleston-born author wrote the only book you'll ever find about a haunted furniture store (Horrorstör), he spent four years listening to phone calls from people wanting to know about time travel, apparitions, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena. He was working in the library of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), an organization founded in 1885 to study the paranormal — or, as the Society's mission puts it, "extraordinary or as yet unexplained phenomena."
Besides archiving letters, case studies, drawings, and photographs, Hendrix handled the ASPR's phone line, taking requests for help from researchers and regular people alike. "A lot of people think that seeing ghosts is this crazy thing — but it's a really normal experience," Hendrix says. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had something unusual happen to them, who doesn't want to know what happens when we die."
He remembers one woman who called asking about time travel. "She was kind of beating around the bush with what she wanted, but finally she was like, 'I need to know if time travel works.' I told her there were a few experiments, very esoteric, but no one really does that research anymore. Then she says, 'My husband died in a hunting accident eight years ago, and there has to be a way to tell him not to go hunting that day. I know I sound crazy, but I can't give up.' And then she hung up."
That this story about a heartbroken woman has stuck with him for so long gives you an insight into this crafter of funny horror stories and irreverent comics. Besides the quirky sense of humor and the love of bizarre Japanese horror films, Hendrix has a softer side. "So many of the people who called were in really dire straits," he says. "Your heart just went out to them."
But his softer side is not the one we're concerned with. Hendrix, who grew up in Charleston and now lives in New York City, is first and foremost a highly original writer. He's the co-author, with his wife Amanda Cohen, of the country's first and probably only graphic cookbook, Dirt Candy. In the book, Cohen and her kitchen team are depicted like superheroes as they slice, dice, and make crazy things like portobello mousse and kumquat-pink peppercorn marmalade.
Then there's his novel Satan Loves You, a book about how much Satan hates his job; Li'l Classix, a series of comic strip treatments of classic stories like Little Women; and Occupy Space, a novella about South Carolinians who decide to build their own rocket and take off into space.
He's also, as previously mentioned, the author of the only book about a haunted Ikea-knockoff furniture store we've ever seen. Horrorstör (you can read our review of the book online) is laid out like a glossy Ikea catalog, complete with a store map, order form, and drawings of Scandinavian-modern couches, end tables, and, as you go further in, the occasional torture device.
It's a comically scary tale that owes as much of its spine tingling to the crippling mundanity of working in retail as to the zombies and spooks that haunt the store. "Hell for me would be waking up and having Satan go 'Here's your nametag, here's your apron. You're working for the next 1,000 years,'" Hendrix says.
He's had experience with that mindless grind, too. Before he was a full-time writer, Hendrix held a series of temp jobs, one of which was for a company that rented out billboards. His job was to go through the company's physical files and put a new label on every one. "There were 12,000 files. It took four months. I was like, 'Who am I?'"
Another thing that helped make the haunted Ikea (or Orsk, as the store is named in the book) idea work for Hendrix was the meandering, confusing layout of the stores. "With haunted houses, one of the biggest things is this feeling of being lost and disoriented. Like the labyrinth with the minotaur, or in The Shining, how Stanley Kubrick makes the hotel feel like a big maze," Hendrix says. "The only other place that sets out to disorient you on purpose is retail. I did so much research on Ikea, and interviewed so many employees ... the store is a giant machine designed to make you shop."
Horrorstör's done very well in sales — it went into a second printing in less than a month. But it's also caught the eye of Gail Berman, the former head of programming at Fox who created the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Berman just recently acquired the rights to Horrorstör to turn it into a television series and is now looking for a showrunner, which is just what it sounds like: a person to run the day-to-day operations of a TV show. From there they'll move on to casting and writing.
Hendrix will get a producer or consulting producer credit, but he probably won't be that involved with the process. And he's perfectly happy with that. "The show is going to be so different from the book, I think I'd be the guy who's like, 'Wait, why are you leaving that out?' I spent a year and a half with the book so as far as I'm concerned, I'm right about everything."
He's got his hands full with his new book, anyway. Called My Best Friend's Exorcism, this story is set in Charleston in the 1980s. Hendrix calls it a cross between The Exorcist and Beaches, the 1988 film about two lifelong friends that made the song "Wind Beneath My Wings" famous.
My Best Friend's Exorcism is also, as you may have guessed, comic horror. "That's all I can write," Hendrix says. "I'm 41. I can't change now."
And although nothing is certain yet, as Hendrix won't turn in a draft of the book until January, My Best Friend's Exorcism might get a graphic treatment as unusual as Horrorstör. That's one of the perks of being with a small publisher — they're better at taking risks. "There's real pressure from the big publishers to make sure everything's standardized," Hendrix says. "A lot of editors and publishers think that readers are very conservative — they try to give them what they think they want. But readers are like everyone else. They want something exciting."
Hendrix does too. That's why whether or not you like what he writes, chances are it won't put you to sleep. "I don't want to do something boring, that bores me," he says. "I always try to figure out a cool way, or fun way, to do something."
Bring it on, Hendrix. How about a HorrorStarbucks?