The Mall is the debut novel of S.L. Grey, the pseudonym of established South African writers Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. It’s not so much a horror story, as the cover image might suggest, as it is a reflection of the darker side of humanity.
Rhoda needs to get to Highgate Mall as soon as possible to score cocaine from her dealer. She’s supposed to be looking after someone else’s child, but decides to take the kid with her, thinking she won’t be more than five minutes and what’s the worst that could happen? The worst in this case, is that she loses the child, beats up a mall security guard, and has to stay hidden until the mall closes or risk being arrested.
She decides to centre her rage on Dan, a slacker bookshop employee that didn’t back up her story when he was interviewed by security. She waits until Dan’s shift ends and forces him by knifepoint to help her search for the missing child.
The dynamic here is interesting. Crime is part of everyday South African life. Rhoda is a disfigured junkie who gets what she wants through violence. Dan, on the other hand, has been walked over his entire life, and readily submits to Rhoda’s threats without fighting back. The two make an unlikely pair, but it’s the horror of what comes next that unites them.
During their wonderings of the cavernous tunnels and storage rooms that constitute the mall, Rhoda and Dan find themselves in an “alternate” mall where McDonalds has been replaced by McColons and the chemist is called Medi-Sin. It’s a nightmare world where Shoppers have to shop ‘till they drop, and mind-controlled employees are chained to their desks.
But it’s not the horror of bloody meat dripping from its plastic packages or shoppers undergoing gruesome amputations for the sake of fashion that provides the biggest chills. The horror comes in the form of the novel’s take on the human condition.
The alternate mall hides nothing behind bright lights and pretty store displays. It describes, sometimes with comic brilliance, what a consumerist nightmare the real world is, and what human beings are actually capable of. In their quest to escape, Rhoda takes on the guise of a Shopper. She realises that she wants to be superior to others as this is how she views herself.
Dan becomes an Employee. At first he believes its all part of the game, but secretly he wants to be subservient and to please others. They adapt to these roles as if they were born for them. The alternate mall gives them a purpose that they were deprived of in their other lives. Soon the missing child is forgotten, and by the time Rhoda and Dan reach the exit, they’re not sure they want to leave.
Reading The Mall, you might experience the sensation of déjà vu. It’s all too real, somehow. Then you realise that the twisted mirror on real life was nothing more than plain glass all along. That’s the beauty of this work. It portrays real horror, but it’s the horror of real life and the ugly beast that is consumerism.