Dan works at a bookstore in a deadly dull shopping mall where nothing ever happens. He's an angsty emo-kid who sells mid-list books to mid-list people for the minimum wage. He hates his job.
Rhoda has dragged her babysitting charge to the mall so she can meet her dealer and score some coke. Now the kid's run off, and she has two hours to find him. 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, and before long Dan and Rhoda are trapped in a service lift listening to head-splitting musak. Worst of all, the lift's not stopping at the bottom floor...
I was a wee tearaway, once upon a time. Weren't we all?
Me, I'd strategically steal away from school to waste away my days in and around the local shopping centre, with all my mallrat friends. Me and mine... we would prop up Burger Kings and internet cafes for hours on end, nursing a couple of Cokes with six straws in each, or spend entire afternoons gravitating from one shopfront to the next, and the next after that.
In retrospect - hell, I knew it then - we were probably something of an annoyance, so it was not uncommon for security guards to move us along, thinking out of sight, out of mind or some such rubbish. From time to time we'd be thrown out of the shopping centre entirely - whereupon, wickedly, we would "accidentally" blockade the entrance... so that didn't happen too much. But there was this one guard in particular who - for good reason, I don't doubt - kind of had it in for us. No doubt we'd chanced our luck with him too often as was, so on this occasion he marched us all to the security office proper, the better to bestow upon us the sort of telling off he believed we needed away from prying ears.
That's a walk of shame I've never forgotten, not because anything untoward happened that day - turned out we were just getting another lecture - but because the security office was secreted somewhere above or below the aisles I thought I knew like the back of my hand, through a network of corridors and stairways impossibly vast and labyrinthine to boot. The idea (far less the fact) that there was this whole other mall, behind and between and beneath the shopfronts I'd been haunting my whole adolescent life... it was deeply unnerving knowledge. I don't set foot in a shopping centre these days without wondering about its hidden darker half.
Evidently, S. L. Grey and I share a certain terror, for The Mall is a deeply discomfiting descent into the bowels of just such a nightmare, by way of broken mannequins, horrifying hobos and psycho spam on jelly cellphones. It is too a biting satire of consumer culture, capitalism and advertising which gives customer service a whole new meaning, and bestows upon the act and the art of shopping the very element of insidiousness I've always suspected it had. "Fucking malls," one of our protagonists puts it, "with their mirrors on every available surface; beautiful girls beautifully dressed telling me with every sexy spike-heeled step that I have no chance." (p.74)
Alternating between chapters in the company of Rhoda, a British runaway with a drug habit and an appetite for self-destruction, and Daniel, a miserable bookstore employee who still lives with his mum, The Mall is ragged-sharp and cynical - a short, smart horror novel which begins and ends with such unbridled energy as to ensnare as if by accident:
"My first instinct is to grab his hand, snap back his index finger, and floor the fucker. Instead I keep absolutely immobile, sucking in deep jags of oxygen to try and still my heart. It's jack-hammering like it does when I've taken too much MDMA, but it's vital I get my shit together and calm the fuck down." (p.3)
Which Rhoda does... eventually. But only after she's taken Dan hostage at knifepoint, bullied him into helping her find the boy she was meant to be watching who went missing while she was scoring some coke. It makes perfect sense when you think on it: the boy - whose name our expat is so strung out she can't recall - looks to have wandered off into the nether regions of the mall, and Rhoda needs Dan to get her through the security doors. See?
What they find in the abandoned levels beneath the shopping centre, however - what unspeakable horrors await the pair in this black hole full of FUBAR - will cost the both of them dearly. Rhoda is suddenly "as serious as someone who's fucked up her life for five hundred rands' worth of blow can get," (p.81) and she'll need to be, to survive.
Rhoda and Dan play off one another terrifically. Though their relationship is initially adversarial - what with the hostage-taking and all - they quickly realise they will have to work together to stand a chance of escaping this squalid sub-urban nightmare. As their friendship deepens, out of necessity at first, then by way of an attraction that seemed to me a touch too easy, there remains always an edge to their dialogue, a barb to their every encounter which keeps one's blood up when from time to time the awfulness of the Other mall takes a back seat.
It rarely does. The Mall is on from word one, and the excruciating tension Grey so cannily establishes only down-shifts when our unlikely pair must take stock. Mostly they're running. Mostly they've good reason to be running, for "this place, this world, this reality - whatever the fuck it is - is twisted. Seriously twisted. Sick." (p.147)
You can reduce the vast majority of horror novels to one of a few formulae: there's the end of the world, of course... there are the ghost stories, hauntings of objects of all sorts... there are the vampires and the zombies and the werewolves. And that's pretty much it. The Mall fits into no such narrative mold. If it reminded me of any one thing, I'd have to say the Silent Hill video games, except here the hill is the fucked-up underbelly of a shopping centre, and I'll tell you now: it's anything but silent. Crazed, sure... cacophonous, absolutely. But never quiet, except perhaps in the ominous silence heralding the arrival of yet another new nightmare.
The Mall is the best horror novel I've read in 2011, not least because it's so original. Don't be dissuaded by the dime-a-dozen premise; from the tragicomedy of errors set-up on out, S. L. Grey - the pseudonym of South African authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg - really brings it. Thanks to pitch-perfect pacing, a couple of characters you can really get behind in Dan and Rhoda, and an impressive repertoire of cruel and unusual sure to wipe the smile right off your face, The Mall is a lunatic thrill ride through a hellish tableau from which all your worst fears will burst, writhing like maggots on a hunk of week-old, mechanically recovered meat.