Odds are, Dear Reader, that you own a least one IKEA item. Odds are even higher that you’ve visited an IKEA at least once in your life. Those stores are everywhere—a quick Google search tellls me that IKEA operates 351 stores in 46 countries on 5 continents. Its furniture is endemic to college dorms and first apartments because its relatively good furniture for being dirt cheap. While IKEA furniture is ridiculously easy to assemble, the shopping at IKEA is like running a gauntlet. Huge crowds, a maze-like showroom floor, and a massive warehouse are only some of the obstacles you must overcome to get your Klippan sofa home.
Seriously, you don’t know the meaning of existential frustration until you go to IKEA for one thing, but you are funneled into the showroom labyrinth through no design of your own, and for two hours you are stuck behind a family that takes up the entire width of the path and stops to touch every. Single. Thing.
It’s this frustration that novelist and film critic Grady Hendrix explores with his horror novel, Horrorstör. In a nutshell, Horrorstör is haunted house story, only set inside Orsk, a big-box furniture store that is a poor imitation of IKEA. Hendrix has admitted that the winding white pathway of the IKEA showroom reminded him of those labyrinthine halls of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s iconic film The Shining. As he put it: “You often forget your original reason for being somewhere.”
Being trapped in such a store is the core premise of this novel, and Hendrix does a great job of making the reader feel just as trapped as the characters. It’s your basic horror movie fair—a rag-tag group of Orsk employees stay in the store overnight to get to the bottom of the creepy text messages and vandalism that has plagued the store. A few of the employees are convinced that the store is haunted and decide to go a-ghost-hunting, Scooby-Doo style. After a particularly ill-advised séance, the group is confronted by terrifying spirits and a ghastly secret. Will they survive until morning, when the Corporate Consultant Team arrives? Or will they be lost to the dark, dank bowels of the Orsk store?
Horrostor is both scary and funny, with healthy servings of satire for cultural commentary. Not only is the premise intriguing; the novel itself is structured like an IKEA catalogue. Each character begins with a detailed product description. I think this was the highpoint of the novel, especially because Hendrix nails the aloof, fake-caring, corporate tone of a real IKEA catalogue (really, any catalogue that endeavors to sell you a pretty, organized, clean life of mass-produced furniture). At first, the product descriptions are fairly innocuous, with only a touch of foreshadowing; but as the story progresses, the descriptions become more sinister, until the reader is being sold on grisly torture devices.
Another strength of the book was Hendrix’s knowledge of horror tropes, which he uses to both bolster and expand the reader’s expectations of a haunted retail space. The characters are stock characters from countless slasher flicks and haunted house movies, which is fun. It feels familiar and has a kind of tongue in cheek thing working for it, but they feel a bit flat. However, their placement inside a retail environment breathes new life into what could have been empty stereotypes. All in all, the characters could have used more development, but Hendrix gets the job done.
The imagery is also very effective—there were certain moments where I cringed and gasped out loud. It would have been very easy to throw buckets of blood on the page, but Hendrix doesn’t overdo it. He knows when to employ gore for maximum revulsion, but he also knows when to exploit the environment to create a sense of creeping dread.
As for Horrorstör’s weak points, the narrative depends on a lot of telling, not showing. I get it. In order to enhance the reader’s scares, Hendrix maintains a break-neck pace throughout the novel, which runs at a lean 243 pages. It’s obvious that Hendrix’s aim is not to explore the lyrical, imaginative power of words—he’s here to scare you and gross you out and make you question your consumerism, and those who work to facilitate your retail habits. And to that end, he is successful. Still, I would have liked a little bit more depth given to the characters (but I realize that’s my personal preference).
On the whole, I really enjoyed this book, both the story and the way it was presented. I’m very fascinated by how our environments shape us and vice versa. In the past, I’ve focused more on buildings and the spaces created by those structures (see here, here, and here). This novel gave me the first opportunity to explore the relationship between our furniture and us. From the iffy quality of the Orsk furniture to the intentionally disorienting Orsk store, Hendrix explores the consequences of these manipulative spaces.
In particular, the narrative is anchored by one architectural concept—the Panopticon.
I won’t go too much into what a Panopticon is or its role in the story other than to say that it is a circular building, originally conceptualized as a prison by Jeremy Bentham in the 1780s. It has a watchtower in the center and a ring of isolated cells lining the outer wall. As designed, the guards in the watchtower can see any prisoner at any time, but the prisoners cannot see the guards. Bentham’s theory was that because the prisoners could never be sure when they were being observed, they would never risk misbehaving. In this way, a prison could be run more efficiently with less staff, and Bentham would establish “A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.”
Hendrix has some powerful things to say about consumer culture, especially when it comes to the retail employees who must inhabit these spaces while helping the rest of us satisfy our appetites for $79.99 Billy bookcases, $39.99 Trysil nightstands, or whatever else we impulse-buy.
At the risk of being painfully ironic, you should really buy this book. It’s the perfect mix of horror, humor, and commentary. I guarantee you’ll see IKEA in a whole new light.