A Horrorreåd to Run From. A Review of Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix.
This is a book you shouldn’t put down, mainly because you shouldn’t pick it up.
I usually wait until the summer before finding my “worst book of the year” winner, drawing it from some supermarket dollar a pop used book bin, but I think I just found the winner — and it’s only March. Horrorstör has to be one of the most poorly written, nearly plotless, piece of prosaic attempts at telling a story that I’ve read in months.
The real horror is reading this book. Save yourself while you can.
Before I go nutz with my critique, I will focus on the good. The design of the book to mimic an Ikea catalogue is nice. The cover flaps are nice. The gloss spray on the cover is nice. The title itself is nice. The font is nice. The page numbers are nice. Let me think a minute…still thinking…nope that’s it.
Amy and friends work for an Ikea-like store named Orsk (it means nothing in Swedish so don’t bother looking it up). Someone’s trashing the store at night, so Amy and Ruth Anne are asked by the manager Basil to stay at the store with him overnight to investigate. They meet Matt and Trinity who are hiding out to do some ghost hunting, and a homeless man who stays there each night. Yay, the whole team. Amy is the lead, Ruth Anne is the naysayer. Basil is the token African American. Yay, predictable roles. Let’s follow a Fichtean curve in either a 3 part or 7 part structure (I didn’t have the courage to figure this out) but Yay, formulaic plotting. At the end tension increases until the big result. Yay, more formulaic plot wrap up. Ugh, and Ugh times one thousand.
If you feel this book conforms exactly to awful how to create a novel advice, well I did too. At page one, I already was thinking, Oh oh, this is going to be a bad experience. By bad experience, I mean an ugly tiresome slog through inefficient and sloppy writing. My thoughts were confirmed on page 2, then on page 3, then on page 4, then on….hang on do you have all day while I keep listing the pages all the way up to page 243?
Am I clear, I found this book to be wretchedly written on just about every level.
So it’s now night and all the characters are going to find out what happens at night. The answer is basically that the box store was built on an old prison where all the inmates were drowned. But let’s go with a parody in which the characters explain a bit more:
“I’m stuck behind a wall,” screamed Ruth Anne. “Isn’t this a lot like that scene in Poltergeist?”
“Screw that comparison. We have to get you out,” Amy yelled.
“But we went into a closet that turned into a long passageway,” Sobbed Matt.
“Do you mean the expanding passage seems an awful lot like that other novel?” Amy started shaking.
“You mean House of Leaves,” he snapped.
“Don’t call attention to that,” Amy said with a screeching whimper.
“And what about all the movies where people built on old graveyards or burial grounds?” It was more than Amy could bear. Now she was losing it. Amy chanted uncontrollably. “When will this nightmare end? When will this nightmare end?”
“You mean the ghosts in Orsk?” Matt exclaimed?
“No, she means reading this book. Ruth Anne howled.
Yes indeed I’m not making up the wall, and the hallway and the store built over the death spot. I’m just pointing out associations I make when I read.
Early in the novel, Amy and Ruth Anne are called into Basil’s office. A nice thing happens soon afterward: On page 56 Ruth Anne applies Blistex lip balm. Later on the page she “clapped her hand over her mouth.” Whoopsie, it must be covered in Blistex now. Not to worry, on page 57 she “anxiously reapplied her Blistex.” (Nice to know it’s hers in case we assumed she stole it). On page 93, Ruth Anne is “chewing her lip.” Yummy, yummy Blistex. Sweet stuff this writing. Personally I think the author missed a great opportunity to add in many more instances of Ruth Anne applying even more Blistex. But of course, I’m not the author. There may have been reasons.
Characters without exception are tedious and unstable, they seem old and young, wise and asinine, boss-like then juvenile. They act like adults then tweens. Ruth Anne, all of 47 years old, generally acts like she’s 7 years old. Character actions, emotions and interactions waffle so much it’s hardly worth worrying about them. They simply are names accompanied by whatever actions appear with them. At one moment Basil is concerned and caring, at the next he’s furious they returned a few minutes late from a floor walk seeking intruders. A spirit causes the homeless man to kill himself and the group stands around chatting in front of it. One character says she got lost in Orsk when she first started working there, really and truly lost. No she didn’t. We absolutely don’t believe people are this way at all. At one point I suffered through nearly 1,000 words of characters having an idiotic, debate about whether they believed in ghosts that ends with, “‘Screw off,’ Trinity said, turning her back on him.” I mean, was this dialogue taken from an elementary school playground? On page 105, after discussing whether to turn the homeless man who sleeps in the Orsk at night into the police, Trinity is sobbing. Sobbing? This is such a common fault with inexperienced writers, everything has to take on hysterical levels as though it helps convey emotions. The problem is it doesn’t convey verisimilitude based on our knowledge of how people really act we simply tune out and lose trust. I think this is the sort of writing people think they should do so they do it to fit some mass market model, rather than to reflect on what writing in this manner is actually doing.
Pick a page, any page, any paragraph basically and it appears there is little real reflection on the writing. Here’s an example from page 190:
“Whoa,” he said thickly through smashed lips, staggering to the right.” His lips are smashed, what’s that mean. Does the author really mean smashed or swollen? Do you speak through your lips, oh, I forgot, I guess we almost always do. Note he’s up, staggering to the right. Onward.
“Amy caught him under his ribs…” She caught him? She stabilized him maybe, but not caught. He was up and not really falling, or if he was, she might not have the strength if he were tipping over. Onward.
“… and held him up” Oh, she held him up? He already was standing. She sure is strong, holding him up with one arm under his ribs. Onward.
“… while blood surged back into his legs,” But why? He was already standing, so blood would have already surged downward. Onward.
“… sending pins and needles cascading down his calves and into his feet.” Sending or cascading? Example: The waterfall was sending water flowing over the edge. You can see how the construction is simply unbearable. Pins and needles come from squeezed nerve pathways, as when arms or legs fall asleep. Pins and needles don’t cascade, they tingle. Onward.
“Basil hunched in pain and Amy helped him stand until it passed.” Oh, I guess hunching no longer means you’re still standing but bent over. Or he stopped standing and we weren’t informed. Enough.
Here’s another absolutely ridic scene. Ruth Anne is on one side of the wall, Amy on the other. They are at a hole in the wall. “Amy felt something wrong with Ruth Anne’s fingertips….In gouging out the hole, Ruth Anne had worked her fingers to the bone, literally. Each ended in a bloody white tip.” In case we didn’t get the play on the colloquialism, there is “literally,” and then just in, just in case we didn’t get it, it’s described. And evidently she can claw through the wallboard but not kick through it.
There is what I found to be a somewhat disturbing, dark moment in the book. Early on, given the general descriptions of working at Orsk, I thought the author might be setting up the phrase, Arbeit Macht Frei, and I thought, no, the author won’t go there as that would appear to be in very bad taste. But surprise, on page 175 here it is, “Work makes you free” in relation to the old panopticon prison underneath Orsk. I thought, seriously? Did the author really do this? kthanksbai.
On a lighter note, here’s some excellent news! On page 113, Ruth Anne “allowed herself one final application of Blistex.” Thankfully Ruth Anne “allowed” herself to do so because if she didn’t we might have a #MeToo situation on our hands. I think I will now allow myself to continue writing this review as I’m nearly done.
On page 173, just after 3:15 a.m., “Amy told herself,” something. I like it in novels when people tell themselves things. Here’s a helpful hint, the verb is “thought.” Amy thought.
More good news! On page 173, Amy found the Blistex that Ruth Anne dropped. Whew. Just so we tie up that loose end, although I was hoping to see her apply it with those bony finger tips.
I found Horrorstör to be a mind-numbing read. I view it much like times when a very young novelist asks for feedback on their first novel. It’s not that one thing is bad, it’s all bad. Then the only thing I can say, if I’m to be honest, is “Keep writing for the next ten years, hopefully you’ll get better.” To say anything else is putting a bandaid on an amputation.