Last year Bentley Little topped our "Best of 1997" list with his tour de force THE IGNORED, a remarkable blend of satire, dark fantasy, social commentary, and outright horror a difficult act to follow, without question. But with THE STORE he has risen to the occasion; it's a novel that though perhaps not quite as ambitious as THE IGNORED is every bit as terrifying and satisfying. With this book, Bentley Little has solidified his place at the very top of the horror genre.
As the novel begins, Bill Davis, the likable protagonist, is a happily married telecommuter who is looking to make a little spare cash to help his two teenage daughters enjoy their summer. Enter The Store: a nationwide chain of Wal-Mart-like shopping centers that only sets up branches in small towns. The Store has come to take up residence in Bill's nature-loving home of Juniper, Arizona, with promises of low prices and everything any shopper could possibly want under one roof an idea that has the little town buzzing with excitement. But a hidden menace comes with it. Dead animals and ominous accidents that surround the construction site of The Store-to-be should have tipped off the town's residents, but the lure of all that potential extra income flooding into the town goes a long way toward closing their eyes to the warning signs. It's always those things you welcome with open arms that can hurt you the most, isn't it? And so a freakish nightmare beyond anyone's wildest imaginings gains a foothold in this quiet Arizona community.
Once The Store opens, it quickly becomes apparent that it notonlyplans on dominating the shopping scene, but also the local politics. Money talks in a small town, and The Store's deep pockets soon have the local police force, mayor, and school system under its belt. Small businesses unable to compete go belly-up by the handful, and as Juniper and its residents fall further under The Store's influence, with nowhere else to turn for what they need, the stock on the shelves begins to change. Firecrackers and M-80s placed on the very bottom shelf (for only a quarter apiece) at eye-level view for a child and child pornography videotapes conveniently placed where the local clergy can find them are just some of The Store's unorthodox business strategies. Bill Davies is appalled, but if anyone else is they're keeping it to themselves; The Store has become the focal point of the entire community has in fact become the community and its power in the town seems unimpeachable.
The novel really gets going when Bill's two daughters take jobs at The Store, against their father's wishes. At this point THE STORE rises to a level of stomach-churning horror that most modern horror novels don't even attempt. Becoming an employee of The Store requires an initiation that makes the worst frat hazing look like the Mickey Mouse Club. Many readers will undoubtedly find themselves deeply disturbed at how convincingly Little paints a portrait of groupthink mentality and the appeal of a cultlike, tight-knit community one that makes The Store's employees willing to visit unspeakable evils upon anyone who threatens the business's livelihood. And if that threat is a member of an employee's family, it only makes the revenge that much more satisfying. The psychological violence here is mesmerizing.
Little generates horror that truly runs deep in the reader's veins by creating believable, well developed, and (most important) likable characters, and then taking us step by step through their gradual transformation into brainwashed, soulless members of The Store's team. It's a depressing journey to see characters you have been made to like commit the vilest of atrocities, and this is exactly what gives THE STORE and all of Little's works, for that matter its power. There is a sense of dread, of almost unbearable loathing that permeates THE STORE, and this brutal unpredictability raises Little's writing to a level that is at times far above his peers. Most novels quickly lay out who is good and who is evil; Bentley Little works under the premise a realistic one that people cannot be so easily categorized. The result is that as we read him we are forced to doubt ourselves, to wonder if we would have the strength or the foresight to act differently from his characters if we were put in the same situations.
The conclusion, in Little's typical manner, is ambiguous and not particularly comforting. THE STORE doesn't have quite the moral complexity of Little's last book, but that's not to say it is without weight. First and foremost it's a masterfully written, entertaining, and terrifying story; but beneath the surface it's also a brutally scathing look taken to the ultimate extreme, of course at the effect that corporate culture can have on a small town. Following up masterpieces such as THE IGNORED and THE MAILMAN, THE STORE is solid proof that Little may at this moment be horror fiction's premier author.