"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I've always known there was something deeply wrong about Ikea. It's like some kind of Swedish hellscape, a garish blue-and-yellow mercantile abyss. You go there and wander that infernal labyrinth in despair, and you feel your soul being sucked out of you slowly by some unseen chthonic force. That endless forgery of rooms that will never be lived in, fake books on the shelves, cardboard televisions staring out at you blankly. All of it mocking you, all of it exposing the vast meaningless depths of modern consumerism. And all around you, the shrieks of small children and the gripes of sullen adolescents. Hounding you, assailing you, wearing you down.
And all you wanted was a god damn particleboard bookcase.
Leave it to China Miéville to delineate and intensify and vivisect that vague revulsion. Who else would situate a horror story in the kiddie ballpit of a suburban furniture megastore?
The short story collection Looking for Jake is disappointingly mediocre, overall. This story is its best offering, but it's a triumph. Worth picking up the book for this one alone.
In this story, the narrator John is a security guard in an unnamed superstore:
It's on the outskirts of town, a huge metal warehouse. Full of a hundred little fake rooms, with a single path running through them, and all the furniture we sell made up and laid out so you can see how it should look. Then the same products, disassembled, packed flat and stacked high in the warehouse for people to buy. They're cheap.
Yeah, I think I recognize this place...
But not all is well in this consumer mecca. John keeps getting called over to manage various incidents in the childcare area. They seem innocuous at first -- upset children, frazzled attendants -- but oddly they all seem to surround the ball room, that vibrant chamber of childlike glee:
And how can anything be terrifying about that place? I googled all kinds of variations on "scary ball pit" and "horror ball pit" and so forth, and got nothing more creepy than, well, this. Or rather, this:
(who--or WHAT--is collecting all the yellow ones at the end of the abandoned hallway??)
So, you know, ball pits: FUN FOR ALL! Except when they are terrifying.
What could be hiding just out of sight within all those colorful balls, after all? Who are all the lonely children playing with? Why does the attendant have so much trouble keeping track of how many kids are in there at a time?
"It always seems like there's too many," she said. "I count them and there's six, and I count them again and there's six, but it always seems there's too many."
Read this one alone, or late at night, at your own risk. It may have put me off ever shopping at Ikea again, but then... I always knew there was something off about that place.
Other recommended stories in this collection: "Foundation", "An End to Hunger", "'Tis the Season". The rest can be skipped.