100 – The Mall by SL Grey

Fuck! A hundred numbered reviews! You’d think I’d have noticed and organized something that’s like, actually celebratory, buuuuut I didn’t, so instead, you get a random-ass small-press horror book on the tail end of our Halloween Spooktacular. Sorry! /bad blog host

Purchase The Mall at Amazon.com Dan is an angsty emo-kid who works in a deadly dull shopping mall. He hates his job.

Rhoda is a junkie whose babysitting charge ran off while she was scoring cocaine. She hates her life. Rhoda bullies Dan into helping her search, but as they explore the neon-lit corridors behind the mall, disturbing text messages lure them into the bowels of the building, where old mannequins are stored in grave-like piles and raw sewage drips off the ceiling. The only escape is down.

Plummeting into the earth in a disused service lift playing head-splitting Musak, Dan and Rhoda enter a sinister underworld that mirrors their worst fears. They finally escape, but something feels different. Why are the shoppers all pumped full of silicone? Why are the shop assistants chained to their counters? And why is a café called McColon’s selling lumps of bleeding meat?

Just when they think they’ve made it back to the mall, they realize the nightmare has only just begun…
Well, this has definitely been the most original of the books I’ve read this season. The Mall is the tale of two very different people who find themselves trapped together in the bizarro-nightmare version of their local shopping center. It’s weird, gross, and gory, and as one might expect from that premise, centers around vague social commentary and a totally OTT horror-ization of consumer culture, which is in actuality the least interesting thing about it. That is clearer in hindsight, though, because The Mall is very compelling as you read it, thanks in equal parts to stellar characterization, snappy pacing, and great momentum.

So, characterization. Narration duties for the novel are shared by two characters, Rhoda and Dan. Rhoda is a drug addict, out at the local mall to score her next fix when the kid she’s been tasked with watching for the night disappears. After a series of, let’s be real here, totally racist incidents with the mall security guards (Rhoda is a black woman, and The Mall is set in South Africa) Rhoda winds up taking Dan, a sulky, sad-sack shop clerk, hostage and forcing him to help her look for the child.

Right from the start, I enjoyed the narrative set-up. Rhoda and Dan have engaging voices, and it was interesting to see the same interactions from opposing viewpoints. Plus, they felt like actual fucking people. Not necessarily the usual gold-star squeaky-clean protagonist types, but real characters, with relatable problems, who aren’t instantly condemned or set in to a predictable narrative arc because of them. Basically, they’re – gasp! – multi-dimensional characters, and they are continually developed and fleshed out as the book goes on.

The first, I dunno, third or so of The Mall focuses on Dan and Rhoda’s efforts to find the lost child in the passages behind the shops, where they wind up having to navigate an increasingly bizarre and spatially disorienting maze dotted with unsettling and grotesque imagery, whilst being pursued by a violent and disgusting-sounding monster that they never actually see. Starfire_gif This is exactly the kind of horror that I’ve been looking for, and it is hands-down my favorite part of the book. The Mall was meant to scratch my Silent Hill itch, and for like a hundred pages or so, it totally does. They’re basically running around the dirty, viscera-spattered Otherworld, and the obstacles that they have to face, set up as a series of game show-esque challenges geared towards forcing them to confront their greatest fears and personal traumas, are exactly the sort of mind-fuck shenanigans that Silent Hill is known for. I love it. It’s a great set-up, a great way to blend the horror elements and allow for character-developing backstory to come out more naturally.

Thanks to this, I was significantly more invested in the moments where Dan and Rhoda were in peril, which is pretty vital to the success of a horror story. The emotional stress was well-handled, and the book was just off-kilter enough that I was never sure how solid the bulletproof protagonist immunity actually was. It kept me reading, because I wanted to know what was going on, why this was happening, where they were being led. I was totally involved, interested, invested, riiiight up until we hit phase 2.

This is the part where Rhoda and Dan end up in the Otherworld version of the mall proper, a bustling hive of activity where workers are chained to their posts, brainwashed to be robotic caricatures of the perfect retail employee, perpetually polite and helpful to Shoppers, people chosen arbitrarily to consume. Shoppers are treated like celebrities: they’re catered to, given the finest clothes, make-up, apartments, soaked in materialism until all of their thoughts revolve around acquiring things, and all they can think about is what to buy, or where they’ll find the next big “sale”, even though it’s all even more meaningless than usual, since there is no actual monetary system in place for Shoppers.

The whole enterprise is overseen by the sinister and bureaucratic “management”, who select and monitor Shoppers and Workers, and are also apparently responsible for the texts that lured Rhoda and Dan in.

This is focal point of the story, but again, it’s the least interest part. It’s basic and broad, all bad puns and a cartoonish, exaggerated consumerism that would make Romero look subtle. To be fair, though, subtle is probably not what they were going for, and even though the effect is like going from Silent Hill to an episode of Tales from the Crypt, I do at appreciate that they were at least trying to say…something.

What I don’t appreciate is the rampant ableism and body-shaming/general dickery that The Mall uses to make its point. The whole idea of the nightmare mall is that every aspect of it is over the top and repugnant. “Grotesque” is a word that I’m probably going to use a lot here, because it’s a spot-on encapsulation of what the mall is meant to be. Unfortunately, the physical appearance of its inhabitants is the means by which The Mall chooses to communicate this.

While some Shoppers are cartoonishly overweight consumption machines (so gross!!11!1!), the majority are skeletally thin and missing arms and legs, having been nipped, tucked, and surgically altered to fit the Mall’s horrifying standard of beauty. Body modification and eventually outright self-mutilation is common among employees and lower-tier consumers, who are encouraged to live up to the standard set by the celebrated Shoppers, who themselves are threatened with the vaguely ominous fate of being “Recycled” should they fail to conform.

So yeah, I get that culture in the Mall is meant to be a funhouse mirror reflection of our own. The problem is that the horror of the Mall’s culture is completely separate from the characters’ attitudes towards its inhabitants, who are labeled “freaks” for their physical differences even before the characters come to understand that they are self-inflicted. There’s no empathy for the people here – outside of the one “normal”, conventionally attractive shopgirl that Dan wants to fuck, and that should tell you just about all you need to know about The Mall‘s attitude on the subject – just villianization and an endless supply of fake tit and botox jokes.

It also doesn’t help that the characters use r-word every two fucking sentences, or that there’s a gross, pervasive misogyny that only gets worse as the book goes along.

At any rate, the in-mall portion of the book just isn’t as good as I was expecting or hoping for. It hops around making a bunch of unrelated social observations, and climaxes in our characters fighting to keep from losing themselves to the roles they’re assigned, and escaping the mall.

This is where it gets interesting, though. Right at the point at which most books would end, The Mall begins its third act, in which the characters have to re-adjust to life in the real world, and cope with how they’ve been changed by their experiences. I liked this. It was unexpected, and I appreciated the willingness to explore some messy ideas that fall outside the conventional narrative structure. In this segment, the horror isn’t in an external threat, but in what the characters have internalized, and how it has changed them.

Rhoda fares best, her experience in the Mall curing her of the physical side affects of her drug addiction, and leaving her uninterested in the emotional ones. She’s finally able to deal with some of the anger and resentment that drove her to turn to drugs and run away from her family, and seems to be on a path towards reconnection and a better life. She is, however, haunted by the memory of being a Shopper, of being important and catered to and admired.

Dan, on the other hand, turns into an asshole. Straight up. He completely tanks any sympathy you’ve developed for him by morphing from a sulky, timid emo kid into a brooding loner asshole. See for yourself:

These fucking Johannesburg suburbs: they suck you in. They want you to get comfortable and complacent and enslaved just like the rest of the rats in this city. Working to pay for shit we don’t need so that we can feel happy we’ve got a job. Putting up with prats like Bradley. Or even worse, ending up like my mom, selling herself for a big, ugly house and a car.
Yeah, he’s one of those douchebags. His internal monologue is all phonies and bitches, sheeple and other upper-middle class whiteboy favorites, and he angsts endddddddddlessly about how worried he is that Rhoda will become a Suburbanite Phony Bitch like his mother, whom he’s increasingly abrupt with and resentful of.

I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to deal with Mom’s neediness, her constant nagging and watch Rhoda put on her middle-class private-schoolgirl act. The strung-out druggie freak who beat the shit out of me and held me at knifepoint just six days ago seems to be some distant dream. But rather that dream than this nightmare.
There’s something about her tone. It’s almost as if she’s going to launch into a Rose-like nag. You give up too easily, darling. Daniel, you really should apply yourself more. You have such promise, but you waste it idling and staring at the ceiling. Opportunity won’t knock on the ceiling, my boy.

‘Oh, never mind. What did you want to say?’Rhoda puts her hand on my arm. ‘I’m worried about you. You haven’t been… yourself for days now.’

Myself? Myself? What the fuck do you know about who I am? This is me. Right here. You taught me that. Until you changed. You changed. Not me. You, sitting like a fucking suburban princess on my mother’s fucking sun lounger.
I barge past Rhoda and Mom doing their fucked-up woman bonding whatever it is, take the stairs two at a time and slam my bedroom door shut.

[…]

I fiddle with Rhoda’s knife in my pocket. What’s happened to her? Or is this who she really is? Were the street-smarts and anger just a façade to cover up her boring middle-class self?
vomit That “fucked-up woman bonding” scene, by the way, is probably one of the best in the book.

Her mouth tastes of cigarettes and beer and gin. And I can taste that her life was hard, I can taste that her life was rough, I can taste blood from her gums, I can taste her pain: this is who she is, not some mallrat, poolside lapdog; not some suburban bridge-playing mother.
It’s like watching a fucking MRA bloom – if Dan was a sad-sack Pedestal Misogynist before, he’s a full on angry shithead now, but I think, at least, that he’s meant to come off that way. Rhoda’s perspective, especially, is used to contrast his privileged bullshit, and she puts him in his place more than once.

Unfortunately, it’s still Dan who cocks everything up for the two of them with his pent-up self-indulgent rage. Through a series of misadventures specifically contrived to put the two in an unwinnable situation, they wind up back in the bowels of the mall, searching desperately for a way back to the nightmare world they left behind. While the direction of the ending isn’t…unexpected, given some foreshadowing and the characters’ reactions upon re-entering the real world, it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For Rhoda, maybe, since she’s at least got a life of luxury and indulgence to look forward to, but Dan? He’s got nothing but brainwashed servitude waiting on the other side, the very same servitude he was shitting on in the real world, so why the fuck would he even want to go back? Makes no sense.

The ending is abrupt, but it’s abrupt in a way that I’d prefer to over-explanation, which is really how I feel about the horror aspect in general. I’ve read complaints that there wasn’t enough explanation of the Nightmare Mall itself or how it works, not enough justification for its existence, but that wasn’t a huge issue for me. It’s Rule of Satire: it’s there to be gross and scary and make a point, and I don’t need a detailed exploration of the monsters or aliens or heaven or whatever the hell running it to fuck it up.

All in all, The Mall isn’t…terrible. I mean, it is terrible in the sense that it is nasty and frequently mean-spirited and too broad and unfocused to really say anything useful, but the strong character development – especially in Rhoda – and some of the better horror elements make it hard to dismiss outright. Ideally I’d like to read another of their novels to get more of the good without as much of the bad, but it’s hard to say whether or not that is a reasonable expectation, and I dunno if I’d be willing to deal with more ~grotesque~ ableist nonsense. TIME SHALL TELL.

three stars


 

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