If you took a quick glance at the cover of Grady Hendrix's new horror novel, you could easily mistake it for the latest Ikea catalog. It's about the same size, the text is written in the same font, and the photo is of the same kind of clean room and simple, stylish, modern furniture you always see in the Swedish superstore, labeled with the same foreign names and reasonable prices. But if you look a bit closer, you'll see a mouthless, pupiless face staring out from the picture frame on the wall, and dark silhouettes of hands pressed against the nearby frames, as if something is trying to get out. The back cover is the same picture, but now obviously transformed into a horrific, decaying torture prison, cracked and rotting, infested with rats, hung with hooks and chains, blood-stained hands reaching out at you.
Setting a horror novel in an Ikea knock-off and designing the book to look like an Ikea catalog (complete with blue and white maps, seductive product descriptions, and fake ads full of brain-numbingly meaningless slogans and buzzwords) is a brilliant premise. There is, after all, something inherently creepy about the sameness of each Ikea; about Ikea's windowless, labyrinthine interior, with its confusing shortcuts and secret passageways, in which we've all gotten briefly lost; about its faux rooms in which no one lives, but which have been carefully furnished with cardboard televisions and false doors all the same. Hendrix takes full advantage of our familiarity and unease with this setting, executing skillfully on his premise.
The book opens by introducing us simultaneously to our protagonist, the perpetually down-on-her-luck, one-step-away-from-bankruptcy-and-disaster Amy, and her hated workplace, Orsk, which promises "a better life for the everyone." Amy has few hopes or dreams, except to be transferred away from this particular Orsk and its irritating deputy store manager, Basil, a passionate Orsk zealot who has had it in for her from her first day on the job. All she has to do is make it through one more shift, and she'll be out. But strange things are happening at this Orsk. For some reason, it's just not meeting its sales projections. And merchandise keeps turning up broken in the morning, or covered in mysterious, stinking waste. Corporate is on its way down to investigate, but before they get there, Basil is determined to have the mystery cleared up and everything ship-shape. He singles out Amy and her beloved-by-all coworker Ruth Anne for a special mission: stay in the store overnight with him to catch the intruder that's causing the trouble, and hopefully remove him/her with a minimum of fuss. It's the last thing Amy wants to do, but she desperately needs Basil's approval for her transfer to go through successfully, not to mention the double overtime he's offering to make her rent. And after all, it's just one night, right?
Horrorstör is a quick, fun, creepy read that is made doubly entertaining by the brilliant design by Andie Reid and wonderful illustrations by Michael Rogalski. It's alternately funny, clever, and deeply disturbing. I particularly like the little touches and references - that the passageway that customers are meant to follow through the store is called the Bright and Shining Path; that the store sells bunk beds called Magog, a name associated with the Biblical apocalypse (I wonder how many of the furniture names are similar allusions that I didn't recognize); that the fact that Orsk's most popular closet is maddeningly difficult to assemble and constantly falls apart ends up being an important plot point. In one surreal sequence, Amy and a friend find themselves traveling in circles in the store's eerily warped geography, unable to trust their senses to find their way, and ultimately forced to rely instead on the view through a video camera's lens.
But I won't give away any more of the book's surprises. You should check this out for yourself. The ending gives the suggestion that a sequel might be in the offing, and I hope that's the case. I'd love to visit Planet Baby!
(By the way, here's the book trailer for Horrorstör, if you're into that kind of thing.)