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Horror isn’t really my thing. I have, in the past, appreciated the occasional novel by Stephen King, and I enjoyed a college literature course on the gothic novel far more than I ever expected. Many years ago, I did see the occasional horror movie in the theater, but only at the suggestion of the guy I was dating. Since I became a mom, extreme violence has not been something I can tolerate at all, and the horror genre, while not dependent upon violence, certainly lends itself to it. I suppose it has to do with being constantly concerned about the welfare of two small humans I grew in my body for nine months. Being frightened for fictional characters completely blows my worry budget.

With that said, I decided to take on the Book Riot Read Harder 2016 reading challenge – and the first item on the list of books to read is a horror novel. So, here I am. I actually checked Horrorstor (Quirk Books, 14.95 USD)  out over a year ago when it was first released because the design of the book was so eye-catching. Andie Reid gets credit for that design on the title page – also an unusual thing to see. Of course, I never found time to read it then – but this reading challenge gave me the perfect opportunity to make good on my intentions.

About that unique design: the book is made to look like an Ikea catalog (or a catalog for a store that is trying to look like Ikea, which is what Orsk is, according to the characters who work in the store). Each chapter is named for a fictional product supposedly sold by the fictional Orsk, a purveyor of cheap, flat-packed, quite-a-bit-of-assembly-required furniture. The images and descriptions of these products nonchalantly start out as mundane, with the Brooka in chapter one:

A sofa that’s everything you ever dreamed a sofa could be. With memory-foam cusions and a high back that delivers the support your neck deserves, BROOKA is the relaxing beginning to the end of your day.

AVAILABLE IN FOREST GREEN, AUBERGINE, CARDINAL, AND NIGHT

As the story develops, the characters (all employees of Orsk, save the ghoulish ones) discover that strange things are happening in the Cuyahoga Falls Orsk store. The store manager selects a brave duo of employees (or at least a willing duo of employees who didn’t already have plans) to stay overnight in the store and find out why the merchandise is being damaged. An odd bit of trivia surfaces: the store was built on top of a 19th-century prison that was demolished under suspect circumstances. Perhaps the former inmates are haunting the new retail space. The premise, as ridiculous as it is, still lends itself to actual horror, although any tension the reader experiences is regularly broken up by smatterings of vaguely Scandinavian-sounding words: “It had the dimensions of a coffin, but she knew right away that it was a Liripip, one of the most popular sellers in Wardrobes” (205).

Because the premise is so silly, I half-expected this to play out like an episode of Scooby-Doo (“I would have gotten away with it…”), only more cleverly. This is not that kind of book – it is more of a mass market genre paperback (like those sold in grocery stores next to greeting cards) in cheeky, glossy packaging (and twice the cover price). The characters are likable enough for the purposes of a horror novel, but the only one given any development is Amy. Amy, the main character, is not going to be starring in any Horatio Alger novels any time soon. She grew up in a trailer park with a single mother who hardly seems to care about her. Despite never getting a fair deal, she did manage to start college – but she didn’t get to finish because her mother remarried and put herself in a new tax bracket – so bye bye, grant money. She is a consistently mediocre employee who thinks her job is beneath her, which makes her well-enough-liked by her coworkers and a pet project for her boss.

Basil is an annoying manager who spouts Orsk motivational drivel and isn’t concerned with making friends on the job – just with doing everything by the book – except for that one moment where he tells Amy he only asked her to work the extra overnight shift so he could talk to her and find out why she’s popular when she clearly doesn’t care about excelling at her job like he does – except that he asked her after he’d asked about six other people. We get very little information about Basil, except that he grew up in a bad neighborhood and is now the legal guardian for his 10-year-old sister. According to rumor, Orsk might be the only reason he and his sister have a roof over their heads, so his loyalty is understandable. Basil’s implied backstory makes him the most interesting character, but we learn almost nothing about him. Too bad – a Basil-led story (or a Basil-and-Amy-led story) would have been a lot more interesting.

Ruth Anne seems, at first, to be more or less another stereotype. She is the too-nice-to-be-real coworker whose job is her life and who seems too good to be true. She remembers everyone’s birthday. She hugs Amy when Amy thinks she’s losing her job. And then there’s a moment that made it clear that Ruth Anne can be full of piss and vinegar when the situation calls for it:

“No, you’ve talked plenty tonight. Now it’s time for you to listen. The last time I checked you were twenty-four years old. Thirteen and angry is a long way back in your rearview mirror. You need to buckle up because it is time to toe the line and act like a grown-up woman. You don’t want to go our on the floor? Tough titty, said the kitty. I don’t want to go on the floor, either, but having a job is all about doing things you don’t want to do” (94)

Prior to this monologue (which actually goes on for nearly a full page), Ruth Anne was so saccharine I couldn’t stand her. Because this monologue exists, she is redeemed in my mind. No one is as nice as Ruth Anne pretends to be – and the fact that she’s obviously pretending makes me want to know more about her. “Tough titty, said the kitty” is a phrase that has been running around my head since I first read it.

I’m not an expert on horror novels, but this one didn’t strike me as a shining example of the genre (or what little I know of it). What kept me reading wasn’t concern for the characters or fascination with the legend of a demolished, 19th-century prison where the Orsk store now stands – it was the concept and design of the book itself, especially as the mundane focal furniture pieces of the chapters gave way to the Bodavest, which “confines the penitent and opposes the agitated movement of blood toward the brain, forcing the subject into a state of total immobility [. . .]” and is “Available in light oak and medium birch” (148) and, finally, at the climax, the Gurne:

Unwind on the cushion-firm mattress as this elegantly designed wheeled stretcher transfers you to the destination of your choice. Whether it’s a fasat-paced trip to an urgent care center or a more leisurely cruise to the coroner’s office, Gurne delivers you in style and comfort.

AVAILABLE IN GALVANIZED STEEL (222)

Like I said – the concept and design of the book is clever – so clever that it pretty much makes up for everything the story is lacking. (Andie Reid’s name should really appear on the cover, not the title page!) Though the end did have more falling action than I would expect in a horror novel, I did appreciate the final resolution, or lack thereof. As Dante says in Clerks when arguing that The Empire Strikes Back is superior to Return of the Jedi, “It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.” I don’t think I’d want to read a sequel (so no Return of the Horrorstor, please). And I don’t think that’s why the end is left the way it is. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that Amy finally finds something to make her care about a cause beyond her own trouble. It takes her a good long while, but she does, finally, start to change.

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