i’m not sure what i can even say about this book except: fun fun fun gory fun.
i don’t know how big the south african horror writing community is, but even though i have only read this book and two by lauren beukes, i can safely say i am a fan. this book is actually very reminiscent of lauren beukes, in all good ways, and may be why she liked it enough to include in her list of horror novel must-reads.
first things first – s.l. grey is a pseudonym for Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg, so i’m going to use “they” when i refer to the author, which will be confusing at first, but you’re a smart kid, you’ll catch on.
in this book we have rhoda and david and a mall in johannesburg.
rhoda was supposed to be babysitting a little boy for her cousin, but she also needed to score some drugs, so she dropped him off in the bookstore and went to cop. when she came back, the boy was gone. her requests for help from security are complicated by the fact that she can’t actually remember the boy’s name, and the fact that she’s clearly a junkie, reeking of smoke and sweat. she’s also black, has a british accent, a shaved head, and severe facial scarring, none of which are endearing her to the mallcops.
david is a passive emo wageslave, all black hair, eyeliner and mooniness – a bookseller at only books who spends his days pining over his unattainable blonde co-worker josie, and hating his boss, his job, his looks, his life. he saw the kid rhoda lost in the employee passage behind the store during his break, but since the cops tell him they are looking for a black kid, he tells them truthfully that he has seen no such child.
rhoda is pissed.
and after the mall closes, she forces david at knifepoint back into the building to help look for the kid. at first, things are going swimmingly – rhoda is chain-smoking and doing coke and david is slouching and scowling, but soon their surroundings start to …change. david is lost in a part of the service tunnels he has never seen before, even though he has spent ample time in them. the numbers on the backs of the stores make no sense, turning into a crazy maze and forcing them deeper and deeper into a series of stairways labelled with disturbing signs and dank tunnels containing piles of discarded mannequins in grotesque poses.
they begin to receive spooky and manic texts on their phones, even though they otherwise have no signal, that gleefully force them into a series of tests that seem to be based on their own personal fears and discomforts.
eventually, after a series of very harrowing mini-adventures involving a few different batches of half-crazy homeless folk, shattered mirrors, a diabolical elevator, and a large, unseen snuffling beastie, they emerge triumphantly, but exhausted and shaken into the mall once more. only this mall is not quite the same mall…. this is the mall from hell. which you might cry “redundant,” but stuff your snark because i mean this literally. blank-eyed staffers chained to their stations chirping corporate jargon perkily like the most perfect customer service drones ever, shoppers who are either morbidly obese or skeletal, sporting amputations and plastic surgery, barreling through stores, shopping ’til they drop, nightmarish advertisements decorating stores that are just off, with ominous names like “Curl Up & Die,” “Last Call,” “Slut Bucket,” “McColon’s” (which serves humungous sandwiches filled blood-gouting meat), and a movie theater showing a very different version of bambi.
it’s horrifying, but also very very funny. you get your scathing social commentary on vanity and consumerism and gluttony along with some less-funny examinations of inequality along racial and class divides. and how, as much as this mall is a carnival of ghoulishness, it’s actually more appealing and accommodating to perceived outsiders than the real world in many ways. brrrr
they get all the retail parts exactly right, in both of the malls – the customer abuse, employee abuse, work hookups, middle management bombast, the narcotizing effects of the climate-controlled wonderland… and that’s just in the “good” mall. there’s also some great bookstore-specific humor that former booksellers like myself appreciated a bunch, Another Dan Brown flick and everyone’s suddenly a reader.
overall it’s a really fun book that makes some astute points, presents some hilarious alternative-world advertisements, and suffers only from a strange shape; the action kind of wanders around in unexpected peaks and valleys, and the story meanders a bit, but i expect it’s difficult to compromise and blend two authors’ visions into one narrative, and i’m not complaining – this was wonderfully smart and gross and i’m so glad to have finally gotten my hands on it.
this book is part of a trilogy, but it’s one of those trilogies that don’t seem connected by character or situation (although the second book sounds very similar in plot to this one). the other two are still in print in my country, so i will snatch them up and report back at some point.
thank you so very much, kristin (KC)!
it takes a village.