The Mall by SL Grey (Atlantic Books, April 2014)-Rhoda is supposed to be watching the child of a friend of a friend. Rhoda goes to the Highgate Mall to score cocaine, and when she steps away to collect, she loses track of said child. Desperate not to be turned into the police, she, er, asks (if you call a knuckle sandwich asking) a clerk named Daniel to help her. He claims to have seen the child running through the back corridors earlier, so that’s where they start, and that’s exactly when things start getting very, very weird. Daniel knows these corridors like the back of his hand, or, at least, he thought he did, but soon, they’re hopelessly lost, and something very big seems to be following them. Soon they emerge into a very different mall, where things seem more than a little off: shop employees are chained to their counters by their ankles, everyone seems to have at least one very noticeable gaping wound, and of course, all of the shop names are very different. Rhoda and Dan’s journey seems to be steered by the text messages they are both receiving from an unknown source, but who is sending them, and why, and more importantly, how do they get back to their own reality without losing their lives?
The Mall is the first in the Downside series (The Ward, The New Girl) by the South African writing duo of SL Grey (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg). Since I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the upcoming The Three by Sarah Grey, I wanted to dive into my copy of The Mall (which has been on my shelf for quite a while), to get an idea of her writing, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Mall is a clever take on the Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole theme, but it’s also much more. The authors did a terrific job of capturing Rhoda and Dan’s all-consuming terror when exploring the depths of whatever hell they’ve seemingly descended into. When they finally get out of those awful corridors (seriously, awful-remember the hospital in Silent Hill?), they must quickly adapt themselves to the new mall, and that means complying with some very new rules. People talk different, they act different, and odd doesn’t even begin to describe their surroundings. Given the strangeness of the Shoppers’ (everyone has a label, you’ll see) clothing choices, I began imagining some of the outfits that Effie wore in The Hunger Games, except take those and add bloody wounds and some pretty outrageous subdermal implants, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I mean.
Rhoda and Dan actually make a pretty good team, once they hit their stride, and of course they’re forced to work together in order to survive their surroundings. The narrative is told in first person in alternating viewpoints, both Rhoda and Dan’s, and it’s quite effective. Rhoda is about as rough around the edges as one can get, but she has her reasons, and the way she perceives herself has quite a lot to do with what happens to her in the Mall, as does Dan’s dissatisfaction with his bookstore job and life in general, made evident in the book’s opening passages. It’s when they finally reach the mall proper, and find themselves separated, that things start getting bad for each of them (again, their distinctly different outlooks on life have much to do with what happens to them.) I don’t want to give away too much, because that would spoil the considerable fun that makes up this book, but its authors managed to combine very effective horror (with not a whole lot of gore, I must add), with some pretty astute commentary on consumer culture and the lengths that we go to in order to attain a certain “ideal”, whether it be in our careers, our looks, you name it. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the alternate mall’s power to both terrify and amuse, and effective black humor is very hard to do, but they pulled it off. It’s obvious that the authors meant their readers to laugh at some of this stuff, even if you find yourself cringing at the same time. And you will cringe. If you’ve ever wondered at the dead eyed (yet oddly hungry) stares of mall shoppers in their element, this book is a special treat. The ending may surprise you (or it may not), but it’s effective, and the authors only took it as far as they needed to. The Mall is unusual, insidious, very creepy (I mean, come on, when are mannequins not creepy? And what do malls have tons of?), and altogether entertaining (also, the imagery is amazing, I could go on…) If you like horror that makes you think, but also offers up some classic scares, this is a must read.
*The Mall recently became available in the US by Atlantic Books, and The Ward and The New Girl will be available in June and August, respectively. Although, you could do what I did and hit up The Book Depository, because after reading The Mall, I just couldn’t wait.