By S.L. Grey
Reviewed by Harry Markov
The Mall by S.L. Grey is horror on steroids with a PhD in psychology. It’s the smart answer to the SAW series as far as torture challenges are concerned and I estimate that even Hannibal Lector would worry entering this alternate reality. Writers Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg set out to chillingly disturb and tastefully disgust.
I admit The Mall exhibited a rather slow start. Thirty pages in and I had not caught a whiff of horror, rather atypical from I’d expect from horror regardless of medium. In retrospect, I’m happy with the pacing as S.L. Grey justify every sentence used in the introduction of Dan and Rhoda, the unlikely protagonists, who must team up in order to survive the mall’s hazardous games. Both characters are socially dysfunctional. Dan’s a mall bookstore clerk with a strong tendency to whine as consistent with his emo persona, while Rhoda’s a scarred junkie with a short fuse and a potty mouth.
It’s Rhoda’s irresponsibility [leaving the kid she’s supposed to babysit at Dan’s bookstore in order to meet her dealer] that triggers The Mall’s domino effect. When the kid disappears [Rhoda really doesn’t know his name, OK] and Dan’s ineptitude to focus on anything other than his woes causes Rhoda trouble with the Highgate mall cops, it’s Rhoda’s idea of revenge to later take Dan hostage and have the whole mall searched for the kid. This plan backfires, when the Highgate mall ceases to be the Highgate.
S.L. Grey excel at reality distortion. As the characters enter sub-basement after next, the mall dons a more sinister atmosphere and the world tilts towards the macabre. From a mannequin massacre to mortifying signs, murderous text messages [while both cell phones suffer from no reception] and glowing rooms, Dan and Rhoda have to navigate this byzantine underground, until they enter the Other Mall. The Mall that has no closing time. The Mall that has no exit. The Mall that venerates consumerism, glorifies body mutilation and robotizes its employs as mechanic slaves.
The Mall employs the video gamer logic from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, most prominent in the scene with the elevator death-trap. References to Through the Looking Glass litter the whole novel as evident from the satire aimed at consumerism and the ideals celebrated in the under-mall. The Mall is high concept in its approach as to how it presents materialism and the hunger for hoarding and the itch to own.
Shoppers function as celebrities, whose purpose is to consume as Rhoda’s skillful narration demonstrates. Body image is taken to extremes with starvation and obesity as ideals of beauty and the advertising business promotes the true face of these ideals. In the under-mall, people have accepted the damage and seek more damage. The juxtaposition between the honesty and the familiarity of the advertising methods is what makes the under-mall so startling.
Although not entirely accurate, The Mall pays homage to body horror through the use of cell phones as extensions of both Rhoda and Dan as well as the main weapons the Management of the under-mall to tease and spook. As the couple descends further down in the mall’s depths, I felt how much they relied on their phones, on the reception and the time display and how with every sub-level their phones betrayed them, stripping Dan and Rhoda from their sense of time and becoming weapons for the Management.
The Mall’s atypical structure accommodates the ‘What Happens After’ segment, where Dan and Rhoda have escaped the under-mall and are faced with the normalcy of Joburg [as normal as Joburg can be]. I risk spoiling the novel, by giving away succulent character development. I’ll say it this way, S.L. Grey answer the question ‘What if the victims enjoyed running from monsters and evading fatalities?’ The answer warped all my expectations from horror as genre and proved to me that horror is more than shock and screams.
The Mall is a catalog of horror. It’s universal as malls around the globe. It will have you look with distrust your cell phone the next time you receive a text.