At some point or another, most of us have taken a chain retail job we loathe, a dead end where one day bleeds into the next with no end in sight. You’re folding reasonably priced, Malaysian-made oxford shirts for a not-eligible-for-full-time-benefits 37 and a half hours a week and collecting your “competitive” wage (this is a nickel above the legal minimum) in an overly air conditioned prison. The specific hell that is suburbia, big box retail, and commercialism has been visited and revisited for the past 60-odd years by artists as diverse as John Cheever, Andy Warhol, the Arcade Fire, and weird Twitter, all of whom have reached the same conclusion: there is something miserable and abundantly creepy about wholesale uniformity.
Horrorstor: A Novel by Grady Hendrix takes that comfortable dissatisfaction a step further: What if working a miserable retail job in a strip mall was actual Hell? Set in an off-brand IKEA in Ohio, Hendrix’s latest graphic novel traces the ever-odder trials and tribulations of ORSK employees as they try to solve the mystery of an excrement-soiled couch and get much more than they bargained for. Amy, the under-performing, sarcastic heroine, is miserable and broke at her dead-end job, and in constant fear of getting fired. When Basil, her overbearing shift manager who has really drunk the ORSK Kool-Aid, asks her to stay overnight along with Ruth Anne, a lonely older team player, she feels like she can’t say no. In a set-up reminiscent of a Scooby-Doo episode, the gang splits up to track the interlopers. They find a homeless man camping out, and two rogue employees filming the pilot of their Bravo Network ghost program. Mystery solved, right? Turns out the 30,000-square-foot store was built on top of the ruins of the Beehive, an early 19 century prison run by a madman who broke the criminal spirit of his charges with endless menial labor. ORSK store #00108 reverts to its roots as a horror show jail, trapping these five in a creepy, deadly maze of their own insecurities and weaknesses.
For as ugly as Amy and company’s fates are, Horrorstor is a beautiful book to look at from the clever copyright page to the ORSK name tag that serves as an “about the author” on the dust jacket. The aforementioned poop-smeared couch, a $299 model called a Brooka, is the heading for the first chapter, and as things become evermore sinister, the plates do, too: in the final chapters, they’re Swedish Modern torture devices. Because Hendrix lulls the reader into a progressively darker story, you don’t even notice the slow march into evil, rendering you a prisoner of your own making who failed to read the now clear signs. By the time ORSK has transitioned fully into the Beehive and Amy is being tortured by zombies with primeval instruments of reeducation, it feels almost like a logical progression of her actions or lack thereof.
Hendrix set his cast as stock characters you can easily relate to, even if that’s not the most flattering aspect of your personality. Amy and Basil are round, dynamic types you find yourself rooting for — you just know that Amy could ditch her bad attitude and return to college and that beneath Basil’s slavish devotion to the brand lies a heart of gold and the best of intentions. Hendrix wrote both characters as wry, self-aware parodies of the kinds of people you meet working at this level of corporate culture, but they have enough funny one-liners and personality quirks that the two feel genuine. You want them to succeed. The others — Ruth Anne, the homeless guy, and the ghost hunters — however, were so vague it was hard to remember their names when it came time summarize the plot. A philosophy-reading slacker and a bubbly rich girl working solely for the discount are certainly the kinds of employees that people these sorts of environs, but when they were out of the frame, it was hard to care about what they were doing or why. When the zombies and ghosts and rats rolled up, they didn’t add much to the narrative and they felt like dead weight.
Horrorstor didn’t take long to read, and is best described as a fun, witty thought experiment that didn’t provoke feelings of squeamishness. If you’re a Steven King junkie looking for the next Carrie, this is probably not going to scratch that itch. The creepiest parts weren’t too tough to stomach, and it’s not the kind of story that’s going to keep you up at night or get you in the mood for Halloween. If you’re looking to foster a sense of unease that will impel you to buy local, Horrorstor can do that, with minimal mental assembly required.