Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Mall by S.L. Grey

This review is based on an ARC. The Mall is available now in the U.K. in the Kindle edition at Amazon UK. It will be available in print in June 2011.

Time: The Present
Place: Highgate Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa...or is it?

First sentence: My first instinct is to grab his hand, snap back his index finger, and floor the fucker.

Maggots. Raw Sewage. Pursuit by an unseen horror. A place familiar yet horribly, surreally different. S.L. Grey's horror novel is brilliant, combining a blend of horror forms with intelligent social satire embodied in that ubiquitous symbol of rampant consumerism, the mall.

The Mall can be read as a straight-up horror novel but it also has complexities and nuances. I don't want to deny the reader the same pleasure of discovery I gained from my first reading so I'm going to be cautious revealing details.

Rhoda, the speaker in the first sentence, is a hostile, violent, coke-head alienated from society. She takes a young boy she is babysitting as a favor for her cousin to the mall while she buys drugs. When the boy disappears, she strong-arms Dan, a sullen, passive, disaffected clerk in the mall bookstore who was the last person to see the kid running through the service corridors. Dan takes Rhoda to where he saw the boy. Two left turns and Dan realizes this isn't the familiar place he goes to sneak a smoke. And then he and Rhoda start receiving weird, taunting text messages on their mobiles. And then they realize that something is tracking in them.

This launches Rhoda and Dan on the first stage of their descent into horror. This will be familiar, and appreciated, by fans of the horror genre— the chase through subterranean passageways. This could be common horror fare —can our plucky protagonists escape the slobbering unknown pursuer— but Grey adds touches and twists makes The Mall  a fresh entry in this trope. I also give Grey full marks for mastering fecal and malodorous imagery and creative use of profanity.

When Dan and Rhoda emerge into The Mall, they think they are safe but begin to realize that the horror hasn't ended, just taken a new form. This isn't their mall at all.  It is a skewed, distorted, alternate version of a mall, one where consumerism is reduced to its basic functions.  This is the heart of the book and has two terrific aspects that pulled me into the story.

First, The Mall it is as excellent piece of world-building as I have encountered in my reading life-time. I measure its success by the way my mind raced as I read, trying to figure out the rules, to apply bits of detail that would tell me how this world operates, where it comes from, and does anything that happened to Dan and Rhoda on the first stage of their descent, relate here. I found it stimulating and compelling reading.  Grey leaves enough hints—a word here and off-hand reference there—to let us know that there is much more to The Mall than we've see so far.

Second, is the satire that Grey uses to flay mall culture. I love good satire and here the author gives the reader an incisive Swiftian view of the social structure of the mall inhabitants and of the services and goods provided. I can't give away too much but let's say that the shops are not what we are used to. Would you go to a restaurant named McColons with the slogan "Clog your intestines with crap so that you don't get hungry"? My new game is to look for analogues of The Mall in my local malls.

The final form that horror takes in The Mall is outside the genre but horror nonetheless. The horror of trying to adjust. How do you fit yourself back into a world that is almost as alien to you as the one you just left? Grey captures the emotional turmoil within Dan and Rhoda as they adjust to the "real world" and brings out their strengths and weaknesses. They aren' the same people they were. It provides a study in character that sets us up for the sequel.

The Mall ss an enjoyable and well crafted horror story that challenges you to think critically without bludgeoning you with a message. Highly recommended.