The Mall, By S L Grey

A bigger shop of horrors

David Barnett
Sunday 22 May 2011 00:00

In a homogenised shopping mall in Johannesburg, a bored young white man, Dan, whiles away his shifts in a bookstore sneaking cigarettes and fantasising about a co-worker.

Rhoda is a feisty black drug user who, babysitting a child for a couple of hours, heads out to the mall to score some coke. When Rhoda loses her young charge, hers and Dan's very different worlds collide and the scene is set for one of the cleverest, creepiest and most memorable horror novels for ages.

S L Grey is described as "a mysterious, genderless figure", but is actually the South African writers, Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz. They tell The Mall in alternating chapters from Dan's and Rhoda's perspectives as she bullies him into helping her find the child.

The pair's journey takes them at first through the service corridors behind the plazas and then far deeper than they know makes sense, into the bowels of the glitzy, starkly-lit shopping centre.

The authors ratchet up the dread with a series of set pieces that are at turns unsettling, tense and even gross. This is skilfully crafted horror, with not a vampire, werewolf or zombie in sight.

But it's when Dan and Rhoda, urged on by a series of nerve-jangling text messages, emerge into what they think is the mall they left that Grey's novel really comes into its own.

This parallel universe is filled with stores stripped of their marketing sheen – a clothes outlet called Sweat Shop, a pharmacy named Medi-Sin and, most gruesomely, McColons – where staff are chained to their counters and shoppers rush around in fear of failing to consume satisfactorily.

Yes, it is satire, but it never descends into parody. The authors have done such a craftsman-like job building the tension, and drawing Dan and Rhoda in tight strokes, that the satire is wholly in keeping with the novel's internal logic – and all the more horrific for that.

The Mall is about what lies behind the bright lights and glamour, and about how once you've seen the reality, the artifice becomes so much harder to stomach. The South African setting is simultaneously exotic and familiar, and informs the horror – as new arrivals in the underworld mall, Dan and Rhoda are classified as "browns", second class citizens in this strange parallel world's own warped version of apartheid.

It's a masterful debut and one which will stay with you – especially the next time you go shopping.

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