Midway through Horrorstör, the 2014 horror/black comedy novel about a haunted IKEA (the phantom-infested store is called ORSK, but it’s definitely IKEA), it seems as if author Grady Hendrix secretly wanted to write a long-form film treatment for a Japanese horror movie, but instead accidentally wrote a scathing critique of 21st-century American capitalism, seen through the lens of a corporate haunted house.
Self-described as a writer of “lies” and a former journalist, and portrayed as a “former receptionist” and “the kind of guy who would enjoy watching a man bite through his arm while masturbating inside a burlap sack,” by The New Yorker, Hendrix first came to fame as organizer of the New York Asian Film Festival, screening, among more mundane movie offerings, gory cinematic selections from Japan’s gruesome “J-Horror” genre.
Laid-out and illustrated by Michael Rogalski to resemble an IKEA catalog, Horrorstör tells a fairly simple tale of a rag-tag group of minimum-wage retail workers who get roped into investigating the increasingly malicious after-hours mischief that someone — or something — is engaging in within the labyrinthine IKEA-style layout of their store. It turns out the store was built on the ruins of (no, not a Native American graveyard) a prison, and the ghost of the warden is hell-bent on continuing his wardening from beyond the grave.
It’s here, in describing the viciously inventive tortures that the warden carries out on the ghost-hunting cashiers and stockers that Hendrix indulges in the tropes and tricks of Japanese horror movies. But in presenting the demonic dead man’s acts of cruelty like loosely-constructed scenes extracted from a screenplay, Hendrix misses numerous opportunities to inject the story with elements of psychological horror that could have made the book truly terrifying.
Instead, his characters’ inner lives remain mostly unilluminated, their fear lacks depth, and their anguish remains self-contained and unshared with the reader.
Except for one very specific and very surprising anguish: economic insecurity.
Again and again, the not-IKEA is cast as a place of oppression that has trapped its low-income workers within a temple dedicated to the worship of false prosperity. As one worker, audience-avatar Amy, pointedly notes late in the book, “There was a prison here, and we built a new prison on its ruins.”
During one of the more effective torture sequences, Amy is strapped in a restraining chair that all-too-neatly seems to symbolize the confinement of low-wage work. The sequence is harrowing, emotionally real, and more deeply drawn than the bulk of the campy fun of this ultimately frivolous novel.
For Amy, and perhaps subconsciously for Hendrix, real terror is found in everyday life lived as a minimum-wage worker on the edge of poverty.
“Every morning she woke up more exhausted than the morning before, every month her rent was late, every week she mooched groceries from her roommates. She never had enough gas, she was always borrowing money, she was constantly in debt, and still it wasn’t enough. … For as long as she remembered, she had been scared of how far she would fall if she stopped struggling. It was a relief to finally have an answer. This far.”
This far ostensibly refers to a far-fetched torture scenario carried out by an evil spirit, but in reality, it’s losing her ability to provide for herself within a capitalist system that offers no substantive safety net that terrifies Amy.
And it’s the allure of succumbing at last to the death wish of destitution, as represented by the torture chair, that nearly destroys her. “It freed her from all illusions. It showed her the truth. She was alone. No one was there to help her.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about IKEA lately. Like Hendrix, I’m working on a novel that incorporates an IKEA stand-in. I sure hope the real IKEA’s corporate culture is nothing like the evil environment of ORSK. There’s nothing funny about the terrors of poverty, even when it’s accessorized with easy-to-assemble Swedish furniture.