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Special issue

Interview with Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör (Quirk Books, 2014)

Claire Wrobel

Notes de l’auteur

The illustrations are reprinted with permission from Quirk Books. The book was designed by Andie Reid, illustrated by Michael Rogalski, with cover photography by Christine Ferrara.

Texte intégral

Introduction

1Grady Hendrix is an American author and journalist who is also one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. Horrostör: A Novel was published in 2014 by Quirk Books, a publisher based in Philadelphia and distributed by Penguin Random House. According to its website, Quirk Books was founded in 2002 and publishes ‘a highly curated list of entertaining, enlightening, and strikingly unconventional books for adults and children in a number of genres and categories,’ which includes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), a representative of the ‘mashup fiction’ analyzed by Megen de Bruin-Molé in Gothic Remixed: Monster Mashups and Frankenfictions in Twenty-First Century Culture (Bloomsbury, 2019). Since Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix has published two horror novels with Quirk Books: My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016) and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020).

  • 1 Hendrix, Grady, Horrorstör (Philadelphia, Quirk Books, 2014), p.9
  • 2 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.121
  • 3 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.71
  • 4 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.83

2Horrorstör is both a horror story and a novel centred on a store which provides its setting. Orsk is ‘the all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag,’ which purports to offer ‘a better life for the everyone’.1 As the novel begins, employees start noticing odd phenomena: inventory mismatches, damaged merchandise, but also a strange smell and dark smears on the furniture. They start receiving ‘help’ texts on their mobile phones and come across an elusive intruder called Carl. Graffiti start appearing on the walls, mentioning names and durations next to the word ‘beehive.’ The book is centred on, Amy, an employee who is persuaded to stay overnight to investigate the cause of the daytime mysteries with a small group of colleagues. They learn that the retail store was built on the site of a nineteenth-century prison, called the Cuyahoga Panopticon after the river by which it was located. The names in the graffiti are those of former inmates and the durations correspond to the length of their prison sentences. After meeting the ghosts of the prisoners, wards and warden, they understand that the prison is referred to as a ‘beehive’ because it ‘hummed with the sound of industry’.2 In fact, the warden, called Josiah Wedgworth, submitted the inmates to inhuman treatment, making them toil to death, in the belief that ‘he could cure a criminal brain using forced labo[u]r, mindless repetition, and total surveillance.’3 When his abuses were exposed in a report which recommended closing down the prison, he decided to drown the 318 occupants. As a consequence, the Orsk superstore still ‘echoes with the cries of the dead’.4 A parallel is clearly drawn between the mindless tasks’ the prisoners were required to do and the kind of labour expected from the Orsk employees. The novel thus offers a variation on the Panopticon to provide a critique of retail work in the late-capitalist Western world, including the multi-level surveillance on which it relies.

Fig.1 (front cover)

Fig.1 (front cover)

Source: Quirk Books

Fig. 2 (rear cover)

Fig. 2 (rear cover)

Source: Quirk Books

  • 5 Hendrix, G., Horrorstör, p.222

3The novel presents itself as an IKEA-like catalogue. The book cover shows the picture of a living room, complete with Nordic-sounding names (‘Kjërring’ and ‘Brooka’), price tags and page references. (Fig. 1) On closer examination, a zombie-like face as well as two hands appear, in black and white, in some of the frames hanging on the wall of the exhibition living room. The rear cover, in a mirror structure, shows the same living room with broken frames, chains hanging from the ceiling, and bloodied hands reaching out from bars. The striped pattern on carpet has become a labyrinth (Fig. 2) The mirror structure is repeated in the inside cover, as the map of the contemporary Orsk showroom to be found before the title page (Fig. 3) is echoed at the end of the book by the labyrinth-like map of the ‘Cuyahoga Panopticon sub-basement 1.’ (Fig. 4) Each chapter bears the name of an object sold at Orsk, with an illustration and a description. The items get grimmer and grimmer, starting with innocuous Brooka sofa and ending with the Gürne stretcher which will take its occupants on ‘a fast-paced trip to an urgent care center or a more leisurely cruise to the coroner’s office’.5 The book also includes mock order forms or extracts from the ‘Orsk Leadership Culture Handbook,’ for instance. The combination of horror and parody provides a vehicle for the indictment of both nineteenth-century penal policies and contemporary work culture in the United States.

Fig.3 The Orsk Showroom

Fig.3 The Orsk Showroom

Source: Quirk Books

Fig. 4 The Cuyahoga Panopticon

Fig. 4 The Cuyahoga Panopticon

Source: Quirk Books

Transcript adapted from the interview conducted on Zoom on the 18th of June 2021

4[CW] Would you like to say something about the genesis of the book?

5[GH] I hadn’t written a novel on my own before, although I’d co-authored some books. And I started talking to this editor at Quirk, Jason Rekulak. I had sent him a manuscript for a revisionist haunted house book, and he didn’t like it at all but he really liked my writing style and he really wanted to do a new haunted house book. We started talking about a haunted retail big box environment because we both felt like it was very likely that if ghosts were around, they were where people spend a lot of their time, and where people spend most of their time is at work. And then he mentioned IKEA and he had this idea to do it as a book that looked like an IKEA catalogue.

6I came up with a version which was that it was a store built on the site of a Panopticon prison. I played very loose with the Panopticon concept. You know, no one built one until Cuba, I guess, in the twentieth century, so I felt that I had a little leeway to take some liberties.

7There are so many bad ideas in nineteenth-century penitentiary science that it was easy to use them. The main one I really took advantage of was the idea of divorcing labour from productivity. There were a lot of prison reformers who were using things like the treadmill, or I think they called it the treadwheel, or the crank, where you would turn a box of sand, or just gears. And there was something horrifying to me about taking work and cutting it off from productivity. The only thing that makes work bearable is that you produce something – it ends. I’ve had jobs where it felt endless, and I think it’s one of the horrors of working: it never ends and you never complete anything, and you just do the same thing over and over again. That was the central concept.

8[CW] Bentham would actually have agreed with you about the absurdity and harmfulness of divorcing work from productivity ... What was it about the architecture that drew you to it?

9[GH] For me, there are really only two architectural concepts that are supposed to induce some kind of psychological state. One is the Panopticon, which is supposed to induce this sense of helplessness and control. I think it was Foucault who started talking about this idea that you’re also surveilling each other and you’re controlling yourself. I feel like – from what I’ve read – some of Bentham’s ideas wound end up going into the Auburn system, and the silent system. And then, there were experiments where guards would be masked, and sometimes prisoners would be masked as well to keep them from fraternizing and recognizing one another. I don’t know how long those experiments went on or if they were considered successful, but all of this stemmed from Bentham and this idea of – in architecture – of control and surveillance.

10But then, the other architecture to induce a psychological state is the labyrinth, not a maze, in which you go through and there’s an ending, but the labyrinth which is – you know, there is no wrong turn, but it’s a winding path and the design of it is to disorient you and cut you off from the world around you and to induce a state of introspection. In the British hedge maze concept, you wind up at some central point where you have some revelation. You see a sundial that says ‘tempus fugit’ or a reflecting ball, or a pool of water, something that’s designed to bring you to some moment of insight, or the walking labyrinths that some cathedrals have built into their floors.

11Then you get into the whole area of retail psychology. I’m sure you’ve seen the Gruen transfer, this whole idea of disorienting the consumer and cutting them off and making them suggestible so that you can have them to participate, to take the decision to buy things.

12One of the things that’s very, very common in horror fiction is the labyrinth: you have the Minotaur – classically –, which is sort of the model for slasher movies. A bunch of virginal youths are dropped somewhere in the woods or somewhere disorienting in a new landscape where some kind of man monster kills them one by one, and there’s only one who can escape. But also things like The Shining, the Overlook hotel designed for the film, or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House … This idea that this key component of horror is an architecture that disorients you, that cuts your off from the world around you and brings you to this moment of introspection, but in these cases – with Hill House or The Shining – the moment of introspection you have is this moment of horror where you realize that you are the monster or you have no identity to yourself, so it was nice for me to be able to incorporate both those modes into HorrorStör – the labyrinth and the Panopticon, to greater and lesser degrees.

13[CW] When I tried to understand how you went from the Panopticon to an IKEA-like store, I figured it was the scripted disorientation concept. I suppose it must be annoying to you when you go shopping there to feel you are not really free and you are being pushed in one direction, following the ‘Bright and Shining Path’ to where you’re supposed to go.

14[GH] Every IKEA is designed is on the same principles, and they all feel very similar. I have nothing against IKEA, but to prepare for the book, I spent eight hours a day for about a week in an IKEA down in Florida. It was probably about a year and a half, or two years after I spent this time in IKEA, I was doing publicity for Horrostör and someone from the Wall Street Journal thought it would be a fun idea to do an interview in an IKEA, so I went into one for the first time since I’d written he book, and it was really upsetting, because I felt I was in my book. The architecture was the same, the layout was the same, the path you travel is the same. It made me very tense and anxious and I couldn’t wait to get out. I actually said we should get outside to finish the interview just to get some fresh air. I haven’t been back in one since. It feels too much like being trapped inside my own head.

15[CW] Usually, what people take away from Bentham’s idea is the circular shape of the building, with the central watchtower, but in your book, there is no central watchtower. If we look at the map at the end of the book, it’s actually a square-shaped labyrinth. What made you decide to get rid of the watchtower?

16[GH] The original prison that it’s built on the side of – in the book – was a classic Panopticon, that was the liberty I took. But in real life, I feel like the physical Panopticon doesn’t matter, it’s been decentralized. If you look at the way retail work is oriented, there’s a way where everyone in retail is checking everyone else. The people on the floor are doing inventory to check the work of the people stocking the shelves who are doing back-of-house inventories who have managers … The surveillance is all-encompassing.

17My sister is actually a labour lawyer, and one of the cases she lost was against Amazon, because Amazon instituted security checks to prevent loss in their warehouses, and they would take half an hour. When you left work, you would have to leave work at the end of your shift, and then you still had a half hour of work left, getting searched. And their point was this is still Amazon time, and Amazon should pay you for this time.

18This idea of total and absolute surveillance, where everyone is supposed to inform on each other is something I had drilled into me. As an American kid growing up in the Cold War era, I was taught how terrible the classic Soviet Union model of surveillance – where everyone was watching each other – was. But at the same time, it’s something you can see in Beijing in China, with the concept of neighbourhood watch committees, who would be in charge of watching this neighbourhood, be used by people to watch one other, and to demonstrate their own loyalty. But this total surveillance is not just a communist model. You even see it in the US, so as a capitalist model, with home-owners’ associations or retail environments.

19It was strange to me to see this concept of decentralized surveillance and self-surveillance – just how pervasive it was, especially in the workplace. I really wonder if this checking on each other’s work is necessary. But of course, it’s in the interest of a job to erase your identity to a certain extent and to have you in service to the larger brand, to the larger corporate identity. To me, that’s when things get menacing.

  • 6 ‘Ikea France condamné à un million d’euros d’amende pour espionnage de salariés’, Le Monde, 15 June (...)

20[CW] You may have heard that two days ago, IKEA in France was fined 1 million euros because they had been collecting personal data on their employees for ten years, and breaking all the regulations we have in that area.6 So, it felt like reality was catching up with your novel.

21[GH] 1 million euros sounds rather painless for a corporation like IKEA … It seems to me that Foucault’s ideas on surveillance have become unmoored from his actual work and could now be applied to anything – things like data scraping, people signing up for these savings clubs, volunteering all their data to these stores to get discounts. It becomes this very weird situation where we almost surveil ourselves, and that surveillance is part of a bigger model, in which it is monetized. It certainly sounds bad, but it is hard to know if it does any real-world harm.

22[CW] Do you remember when you first came across Bentham’s Panopticon or Foucault’s panopticism?

23[GH] I went to a Southern white middle school. Our teachers had a real love for things like utilitarianism, so we got a lot of Bentham early on. The Panopticon was a really useful concept for them because it was something physical, that when you’re twelve-years old you can see and understand. This was in the 1980s, so they’d apply it to countries like the Soviet Union, Cuba or China and present it as a useful concept for prisoners, but evil concept when it was applied by these other governments to their citizens. It was a really peculiar point of view on it.

24[CW] So, in your education, and in the context of the Cold War, the Panopticon was used as a counter-example to condemn communist regimes, but what you do in the book is bring it home, to the United States. I was wondering if the missing link between this old English scheme and your book was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia because I saw that it features in an episode from ‘Ghost Hunters’ – and you do refer to these kinds of shows in the novel. Also, I was wondering whether there was any particular reason why you picked Cuyahoga county in Ohio. And finally, at some point in the book, Amy, the main character finds an extract from an 1839 report about the atrocities committed by the warden which recommends closing down the place. Is there any historical background for that or is this something you invented?

25[GH] All the history was invented. The early nineteenth century, from my point of view, was a time when we were developing these penal systems in the US and trying to institutionalize and standardize them. They were trying to get away from corporal punishment, and there was this idea that you could reform people’s souls, and it resulted in a lot of cruelty. Because prisoners had no political voice, a lot of cruelty got visited on them.

26As compared to the UK, we weren’t as execution-happy as the UK was with their penal system, but at the same time we often did crueller things with isolation, solitary confinement, silent systems. So, to me it was very conceivable that a wealthy reform-minded individual would institute a contract with a state or a city in Ohio to develop a prison.

27The Eastern State Penitentiary, I’ve been to it a few times. Actually, my publisher is located near there. That’s less of a Panopticon, and more of a solitary confinement and isolation-based system. But still, the idea of an architecture for manipulating people and controlling people – you feel it when you go there.

28The reason it’s by the Cuyahoga river is I had been to Cleveland a few times – in 2009 or 10 – and I was really astonished at how empty it was. It was so depressing and economically devastated. So, I thought it would be a great place to drop a big box store. But also, because of this idea of the prisoners being drowned by the warden, I had to put it near a body of water.

29Actually, what’s strange is, after I wrote the book, a company in America called Overdrive, which is an e-book company that has a contract with public libraries – their headquarters, which is a giant anonymous corporate death star, is right where the Orsk is, exactly where it was. And they’re all very aware of that. Some of them have this myth that they’re built on the ruins of this fictional location in the book.

30The fictional backstory with it is that this warden, Josiah Worth, built this, it went wrong, everyone just started going crazy. He was basically breaking people with the endless labour, the constant surveillance, the erasure of their sense of self. A committee of inspectors were put together – and back then there was no such thing as an official prisons’ anything, it would be concerned respectable citizens (doctors, lawyers, that kind of thing) – and they were horrified at what they saw. And before they could shut it all down, and this guy would be disgraced and look like he’d failed, then he opened the river gates and drowned everyone in the prison – all the inmates. That’s the fictional story of it.

31[CW] Do you have any personal experience of the carceral world?

32[GH] I spent a little time in jail, many years ago. I was just there for four days. It was for civil disobedience. I did not go to prison – which is where people go after they’ve been sentenced, for felonies and sentences of more than a year – but jail, which is where people await their sentencing or are serving sentences for misdemeanour, of less than a year.

33The thing that really struck me was how boring it was. I was on a cellblock for about twenty-five people that had fifty inmates on it, so every cell was doubled. I slept on the floor with a blanket while the other inmate, who was there for longer than me, was sleeping on a cot.

34We weren’t allowed to do anything. Once a week we were allowed one hour outdoors, and I was not there during that hour. There was a television that you couldn’t change the channel on. Every piece of reading material was banned, except Bibles. No playing cards, no pens, no paper, no books, no magazines, no newspaper. It was a small jail in Georgia. The week before I got there, everyone had had their cigarettes confiscated, so everybody was a little stressed out. The warden had just stopped smoking, and he had decided that the whole jail would now be non-smoking.

35And also, you really felt lost, you weren’t told how long you were there for. I didn’t know if I was awaiting arraignment, I didn’t know when I’d see a judge, I didn’t know if anyone knew I was there. And it really just erases completely who you are. The only time I’ve ever been that bored and felt that anonymous was in a job. For me, there was a really clear parallel between incarceration and a certain type of work, where your identity doesn’t matter and you are in this endless situation. I think everyone’s had a job where time just creeps, and then you find out that someone hasn’t shown up for their shift and you’ve got to do it double. It’s like being in hell.

36A lot of people have this image in their minds of prisons being dangerous – maybe, I haven’t been to prison. But I have been to jail and the image I have is of this hell kind of limbo boredom, and your mind really gets the better of you. That’s what really put those two things – jail and retail – together for me.

37[CW] Were you aware of other contemporary variations on the Panopticon, such as, for instance, the Siberian chapters in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus or Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon?

38[GH] No, I reread Angela Carter’s collection of short stories Bloody Chamber a lot, but I’ve missed those. But I think the Panopticon is a really compelling idea for authors because it has a physicality to it, and because it is supposed to be about surveillance. A lot of people want to write about surveillance, but it’s very hard – at least for people my age – to understand how surveillance works now, how pervasive it can be, what it means, and how voluntary it can be, but also how decentralized it is. I feel that one of the problems with Foucault’s theory about control and the Panopticon is that it gives the impression that surveillance is one-way, it doesn’t presuppose any agency in the person being observed. And I find that people do have an agency, or an illusion of agency now, which is why they participate. You are being watched but you’re also watching other people. And so, it’s a two-way street.

39Surveillance is very hard to write about and very hard to think about. So, I think people go back to the Panopticon because it’s physical and concrete and easier to understand.

40[CW] But, precisely, given the changes in surveillance you have just mentioned, hasn’t the Panopticon become outdated?

41[GH] I feel like there is still a physicality to the modern-day surveillance. It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for smartphones. It wouldn’t be all-pervasive, it wouldn’t be voluntary, it wouldn’t be so intrusive. That’s something which is really hard to write about because it’s so virtual. There’s a physical piece at the centre but there’s an invisible network around it and it’s interconnected in really complex ways.

42At the same time, Bentham’s Panopticon is virtual to some extent. There’s the physical watchtower in the center, but then the act of seeing and being seen and the way people understand they’re being seen or imagine they’re being seen – that’s all imaginary, that’s all virtual, there’s no physicality to it, except for light, I guess. So, the Panopticon as a physical model is very useful still, because you have a central standardized watchtower in the middle, and a virtual invisible network extending out from it, of people seeing and being seen.

43On a symbolic level, towers are supposed to be the pinnacle of human achievement. We build them to commemorate our magnificence. A tower like the Eiffel tower has no purpose but to show off how wonderful we can do things with technology. The Tower of Babel is the same thing, it says: ‘Look at this technological achievement, we can pierce the heavens.’ Towers have always played that role. Look at the race to have the tallest skyscraper as this notion of human achievement. Or tarot, where the tower card shows the lightning bolts hitting the tower, which is supposed to represent all you built, all you’ve achieved, your entire life, your entire way of being, and here it is, toppling. You see it everywhere. You see it in Tolkien, in epic poetry. So that watchtower is so iconic. It’s one of those images that I think is universal, between people of all cultures.

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Notes

1 Hendrix, Grady, Horrorstör (Philadelphia, Quirk Books, 2014), p.9

2 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.121

3 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.71

4 Hendrix, G., Horrostör, p.83

5 Hendrix, G., Horrorstör, p.222

6 ‘Ikea France condamné à un million d’euros d’amende pour espionnage de salariés’, Le Monde, 15 June 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2021/06/15/espionnage-de-salaries-ikea-france-condamne-a-1-million-d-euros-d-amende_6084202_3224.html

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1 (front cover)
Crédits Source: Quirk Books
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/docannexe/image/10279/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 244k
Titre Fig. 2 (rear cover)
Crédits Source: Quirk Books
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/docannexe/image/10279/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 328k
Titre Fig.3 The Orsk Showroom
Crédits Source: Quirk Books
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/docannexe/image/10279/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 263k
Titre Fig. 4 The Cuyahoga Panopticon
Crédits Source: Quirk Books
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/docannexe/image/10279/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 538k
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Claire Wrobel, « Interview with Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör (Quirk Books, 2014) »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 22 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 juillet 2022, consulté le 05 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/10279 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.10279

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Claire Wrobel

Paris-Panthéon-Assas University and VALE (Voix Anglophones, Littérature et Esthétique – Sorbonne University)

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