The Mall cover

S L Grey – The Mall review

The Mall coverNew novelist S. L. Grey is an authorial gestalt. One half worked in bookselling and holds an MA in Vampire Fiction while the other is a horror film animator and writer of prose and poetry. Both are firmly South African and their respective backgrounds heavily inform this novel, a satirical horror set in a South African shopping centre starring a bookshop wageslave and a drug-abusing runaway. It does not, however, feature any vampires.

Leading duo Rhoda and Dan are less heroic than most. The former has lost a child in the mall whilst scoring coke, and the latter is a socially and emotionally stunted miseryguts who despises his job. Events fling this unwilling pair of misanthropes together in pursuit of the child Rhoda has lost.

As they search the hidden network of corridors and storage rooms behind the mall’s shops things get a little weird. Rhoda and Dan encounter unfamiliar tunnels and rooms, disturbing piles of dismembered shop mannequins, hideous grunting creatures always out of sight but forever in pursuit, an abandoned wing of the mall populated by a few other lost souls and more. Driven on by a combination of fear and bloody-minded cooperation, Rhoda and Dan gradually make their way through a series of trials laid out by an unseen tormentor with a fondness for text messaging his victims, until they eventually reach the destination they have been driven towards.

The Mall is a novel of two parts. The first is as I’ve previously described; an elaborate chase sequence which strikes an enticing balance between the supernatural and the ordinary. There’s a strong sense of tension throughout and the mysterious nature of Dan and Rhoda’s plight makes for quite a page-turner.

Alas the second part of the novel shifts away from this strong narrative drive in order to explore a satirical vision of a demonic shopping centre. Although some elements of this are unsettling it rarely evokes horror, disgust or fear, while the satire lacks bite and — dare I say it — a clear target or cohesive message. Things tick along well enough but it’s a disappointment after the novel’s strong beginning.

What does work deliciously well is the relationship between Rhoda and Dan, which grows convincingly from shared contempt via grudging solidarity to a strong friendship forged through shared trials and stress. These characters carry the novel through its weakest portion and later we see a convincing take on how this relationship holds up when removed from the environment that produced it, but the denouement which follows ultimately failed to convince me.

I’ve no reservation in describing this book as a strong debut but I must also emphasise that I found it a flawed piece of work, one at its best when keenly focused on the plight of its anti-heroes pitted against an unknown threat. Still, if you’re looking for a horror novel that does something a bit different it’s worth your time — just don’t expect a critique of consumerism of Ballardian depth and subtlety.

320pp paperback, Corvus Books.

[This review is to be published in a future issue of Vector (TBC), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review, dating from June 2011, precedes the published version being reformatted for printing but is otherwise identical.]

Comments are closed.