Interview with Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör, classical horror story set in IKEA-like superstore

horrorstor

Horrorstör (Quirk Books) is a classic horror story – set in a furniture superstore resembling a IKEA store. A quote from the marketing text: ”A traditional haunted house story in a contemporary setting (and full of current fears), Horrorstör comes conveniently packaged in the form of a retail catalog, complete with illustrations of ready-to-assemble furniture and other, more sinister accessories. We promise you’ve never seen anything quite like it!”

We asked the author, Grady Hendrix, a few questions about Horrorstör, IKEA, Orsk, furniture and book design:

How did you get the odd and amazing idea to write a horror story set in a superstore, resembling a IKEA-store?

I can’t take all the credit. My editor at Quirk is at least half to blame. For years, I worked at a non-profit society that did research on the paranormal. I mostly answered their phones and did filing, but I got access to their archives that went back to the 19th century and spent hours reading accounts of hauntings. I became really fascinated by haunted houses, haunted sidewalks, haunted barns, haunted novelty supply warehouses, haunted medical record filing facilities, all of it documented extensively in this archive, and I felt like there was an opportunity to do an updated haunted house story. I was trying to sell a different book to Quirk about a haunted house and they rejected it, but Jason Rekulak, my editor, asked me if I’d thought about doing a haunted big box retail store. We started talking and within minutes we were talking about doing a haunted Ikea.

One of the things that I like most about the idea is that both ficitonal and real hauntings always seem to involve a sense of disorientation, of things moving subtly while you’re not looking, of a house like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House where the floorplan seems to shift and confuses you, and let’s face it: getting lost in an Ikea is not a unique experience.

Was designing the book like a IKEA catalog part of the original idea?

Right from the beginning. With the rise of ereaders it’s really hard to justify buying a physical book these days. How do we convince readers to go to a store and buy a book or order it online and wait days when they could download it instantly with a single click? This was our anwer. We wanted to make the book an object that was fun to own and that was part of the story. Why can’t the design be a part of the narrative? People are so visually literate today that it was a thrill to engage them totally with every aspect of this book, both the writing and the design. It was a pain to coordinate, but it was a blast to create. And I’m such a freak that I insisted on writing everything in there, right down to the fine print on the order forms. I’ve done this kind of corporate copywriting for a living before so it was fun to turn it into something warped.

One of the main themes is work in the 21th century, I think. To me it seems to be a central theme in contemporary fiction. Did you do a lot of reasearch about work? Specifically about IKEA and work?

I’m really glad you noticed. I’m fascinated by work. It’s what we spend most of our lives doing but people don’t write about it a lot, which is very weird to me. Work is the one thing in our lives besides love that will give us our greatest joys and our greatest heartaches. A lot of religions talk about their particular versions of Hell, but I think it’s obvious that Hell is a job with no vacations, no promotions, no breaks, and no point. To me, that’s the key. We all want a job that feels like we’re doing something worthwhile. The jobs that made me feel like an inhuman wretch were always the ones that were unending and generated no direct good, I was just a human cog in a vast, inhuman machine. So I was fascinated when some of the research for Horrorstör led me to the Victorian idea of rehabilitating prisoners through work.

One theory of Victorian prison management was that work would redeem an inmate’s soul, so they created these machines that forced inmates to do repetitive physical labor over and over again. Some of it was real work like picking oakum, which meant picking apart the fibers in old rope so that it could be mixed with tar and used to patch a ship’s hull — inmates would do that until their fingernails turned black and fell off. But then those ingenious Victorians built treadmills, which were enormous hamster wheels that inmates had to walk inside for hours each day. At first, the treadmills were connected to the milling stones that ground the prison’s flour but then some bright boy had the idea of disconnecting the treadwheel from any kind of productive output, transforming it into a standalone device that generated useless labor.

That led to a whole host of other inventions to create useless work, like the crank, which was a barrel full of sand with a handle on one end and the inmates had to turn it up to 10,000 times a day. The idea was that work was virtuous so forcing inmates to imitate work would encourage virtue, but by uncoupling labor from actually producing anything they created Hell on earth. I think all of us have, at some point in our lives, worked in a job where our efforts seemed to produce nothing tangible, nothing good, just more meetings, more memos, more Powerpoint presentations, and I’m sure we all felt like we were trapped on a treadmill walking to nowhere, or turning a crank that did nothing until our souls died.

As for Ikea, I interviewed a lot of Ikea employees about working for Ikea, and one reason the store in the book is named Orsk is that the people who worked for Ikea were too happy! I’ve done tons of interviews in my career as a journalist and rarely have I encountered so many people who each, independently of the other, went out of their way to tell me how much they loved their jobs. It was eerie! I needed a store that had an uncaring management structure, and that didn’t seem to be Ikea, so Orsk, the American knock-off of Ikea, was born.

The book is, obviously, full of furniture. How did you imagine the furniture in the book? Are You interested in furniture?

Living in an apartment, most of my life from 19 to 35 was spent acquiring and discarding furniture. You move out of your parent’s house, where there are lots of expensive things, and into a dorm full of institutional furniture like what you’d find in a state hospital, or into an apartment where you can only afford a mattress and everything else was pulled out of the trash, and furniture becomes one of those things you can easily get obsessed with. Acquiring furniture becomes this marker of your progress through the game of life, like filling up your inventory in a video game. We all spend years working in jobs to afford certain items: a desk, a dining room table, a good couch. Buying a good, grown-up couch is one of those rites of passage that are as intense and ritualist as puberty ceremonies in some Amazonian tribes.

Furniture fills our lives, our houses, and our mental spaces, and it has a gravity all its own. When I lived in LA my wife and I had separate apartments around the corner from each other for a while. Rents were cheap so I had this massive house I’d rented and literally no furniture. There was a rolling chair I got at a thrift store, an old filing cabinet that was my desk, and a pile of dirty laundry with an old futon mattress on top that was my bed. My wife used her savings to go out and buy a couch, a table, chairs, a bed, lamps. My house felt haunted, hers felt human. Before long I was spending all my time at her much smaller place and finally moved back in. The lure of furniture is not to be underestimated.

Stores like Orsk and IKEA sell mass-made furniture and other goods. Is your novel a critique of this kind of production and consumption?

Not at all. I’m a guy living in the 21st century, and part of me will always think that I should have built my house out of trees I chopped down myself and I should have crafted all my furniture by hand. I will always feel somewhat guilty that I’m not living up to my Masculinity Contract. But the fact is, we don’t live in that kind of Little House on the Prairie world anymore. We buy our furniture like normal people. So when Ikea comes along and offers affordable, decently-built, and well-designed furniture it seems like a trick. It triggers the same part of our brain that warns us about walking under ladders or breaking mirrors. It feels too easy. It feels wrong. Because Ikea straddles that contradiction, it winds up becoming a flashpoint for a lot of anxieties people have about mass-made furniture and consumerism.

But not Orsk. Orsk just sucks. It is a terrible store.

To me it seems like your novel has been very well recieved. What has surprised you the most about the reception? What has made you most happy and proud?

I’m thrilled people are having as much fun reading it as I did writing it, but if I had to point to one thing that really makes me happy it’s that readers are navigating the switch from humor to horror with absolutely no problem. I grew up on Hong Kong movies where tone wasn’t an issue: a historical romance could switch from goofy comedy, to martial arts movie, to horror movie all within 45 minutes and no one batted an eye. But there’s this real pressure in books to maintain your “tone.” Your tone must be consistent. Your tone must be controlled. Your tone must be straightforward and not confusing at all or you are a terrible writer. Horrorstör starts off funny and light and slowly switches to being very sincere and scary and I was terrified I would see the words “inconsistent” and “the tone veers wildly all over the place” in reviews. Instead, I’ve been so, so, so excited to see people not just accepting that shift in tone, but embracing it. America, I will turn you into a Hong Kong movie yet!

Are you working on any new projects?

I am up to my eyeballs in a book I’m writing called My Best Friend’s Exorcism, about two best friends in high school back in the 80’s during the Satanic panic who become convinced that one of them is possessed by Satan. Also, they love Phil Collins. And after writing that sentence I feel a need to state for the record that Phil Collins is definitely not Satan.

Ola Wihlke

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