Time: The Present
Place: Highgate Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa…or is it?A mall is a safe place, right? Crowds of shoppers looking, buying, coveting, envying. A small town, really. What if this concentration of consumerism had the power to bring a surreal and grotesque exaggeration of itself into being. This is the premise of The Mall, published in June 2011 in the UK by Atlantic Books.
Rhoda is a hostile, violent, coke-head. Her cousin unwisely lets her babysit her son and Rhoda takes the boy to the mall while she buys drugs. When the boy disappears, she strong-arms assistance from Dan, a sullen, passive, disaffected clerk in the mall bookstore. Dan was the last person to see the kid in the service corridors behind the shops. Two left turns from where Dan last saw the boy and he realizes this isn’t the familiar place he goes to sneak a smoke. And then he and Rhoda start receiving weird, taunting text messages on their mobiles. And then they realize that something is tracking them.
Rhoda and Dan begin their Descent into horror. This will be familiar, and appreciated, by fans of the horror genre— the chase through subterranean passageways. This could be common horror fare —can our plucky protagonists escape the slobbering unknown pursuer— but Grey adds touches and twists that make The Mall a fresh entry in this trope. The duo discovers that they are being given puzzles and challenges and failure to solve them will be fatal.
When Dan and Rhoda finally escape and emerge into The Mall, they think they are safe but soon realize that the horror hasn’t ended, just taken a new form. This isn’t their mall at all. It is a skewed, distorted, alternate version of a mall, one where consumerism is reduced to its basic functions. The people in this mall have rigidly defined roles, Customer Care Officers, Wannabes, and Shoppers. Failure to perform your duties has deadly consequences.
This is the heart of the book and has two aspects that will pull the reader into the story. First, The Mall is an excellent example of world-building. The details, descriptions, internal logic engage the reader to figure out the rules, apply the details to find out how this world operates and where it comes from. It is stimulating and compelling reading. Grey leaves enough hints—a word here and off-hand reference there—to let us know that there is much more to The Mall than we’ve see so far.
Second, Grey uses satire to flay mall culture. I love good satire and here the author gives the reader an incisive Swiftian view of the social structure of the mall inhabitants and of the services and goods provided. Here is a taste. Would you go to a restaurant named McColons with the slogan “Clog your intestines with crap so that you don’t get hungry”?
After the events of the Descent and the The Mall, the final form that horror takes is outside the horror genre but horror nonetheless, he horror of trying to adjust. How do you fit yourself back into a world that is almost as alien to you as the one you just left? Grey captures the emotional turmoil within Dan and Rhoda as they adjust to the “real world” and brings out their strengths and weaknesses. They are not the same people they were. It provides a study in character that sets us up for the sequel.
Caution: The Mall includes strong language and vivid imagery of unpleasant things.
Mack Lundy is a librarian at the Swem Library of The College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA where he works in the library IT department. His family lived in Pretoria, South Africa in the fifties giving him a small personal connection to Africa. A chance encounter with a South African crime writer has fired an interest in African literature though he still focuses on crime fiction. He blogs at AfricaScreams (http://africascreams.com)