I don’t know why I’ve avoided Bentley Little for so long. I read his novel The Walking when it came out, and half of The Town years ago, but neither novel caught my attention so much that I stuck with him. That says more about me though than it does about Little, because after finally coming around to reading The Store, there is no doubt in my mind that Little is a damn fine writer. And The Store is an underrated masterpiece of the genre.
The Store succeeds where many other horror novels fail: at operating on two equally engaging levels at once. It is both a compellingly creepy tale about evil invading and taking over a small town and a wickedly sharp satire of how corporations are (in this case, a very thinly veiled Wal-Mart) corrupting and destroying America.
Satire is a tricky business, especially in the field of horror. Satire is not exactly known for subtly, and it is all too easy to trip and fall on your face. And while the horror-comedy is a respectable genre—one of my personal favs, in fact—the end result is generally more humorous than horrifying. Films like The Final Girls or Netflix’s The Babysitter are hilarious, but watching them you’re not exactly shaking with fear.
But The Store hits both buttons at once. The novel follows the arrival of The Store—a Wal-Mart knockoff with far more hellfire and brimstone—in the small town of Jericho, Arizona. In the Bible, Jericho was the site of Joshua’s great battle, and in Little’s novel it is the site of an admittedly different, but still great, confrontation. The Store is known for strategically setting up shop in small towns, rendering local businesses kaput, and insidiously overtaking the city government one piece at a time.
The novel’s main character, Bill Davis, has a front row seat to this hostile takeover. He’s a technical writer who has, ironically, been hired to write a corporate manual for The Store. As the novel progresses, he watches as his friends’ businesses shut their doors, the city council bows down to pressure from The Store, changing city zoning laws and tax codes, and individuals who stand up to The Store are swiftly and silently murdered.
Davis’s teenage daughters both get jobs at The Store against his wishes. His oldest daughter forgoes her college career to stay on the fast track to a management position within The Store. But this comes at a price, of course.
The initial training course for Sam Davis includes forcing her to strip naked and run down an aisle of Store employees who whip and flog her as she runs by. Later, as she moves up the corporate ladder, she is forced to engage in hardcore sexual acts with her boss. While lesser writers might linger over such passages, Little unsettles the reader by offering few details, letting the imagination fill in the blanks. Regarding what sexual perversions Sam is forced to endure, Little mentions only her bloody panties, which are found by her younger sister Shannon.
In fact, Little’s entire novel is achieved with great restraint. Ritual acts of murder are handled in but a few lines, and the descriptions of The Store’s founder, Newman King, are unnerving precisely because Little never fully reveals exactly what King really is.
As the town crumples under The Store’s boot, Davis eventually decides he must take a stand. But instead of murdering Davis, Newman King offers him a job. He flies Davis out to the corporate headquarters and makes him a proposition: undergo a two-week training course and become manager of Jericho’s Store and have complete and total autonomy for its operations.
Davis reluctantly agrees, seduced by the idea of doing good by working from the inside. But like every politician in American history, Davis is corrupted by the system, and his initial attempts to fix The Store are tossed aside. He begins to believe in The Store’s mission and the way it does business.
It is only a sadistic twist that snaps him out of his reverie. While at the corporate headquarters, Davis awakes in the middle of the night to a woman straddling him. Though he feels guilty for cheating on his wife, he goes through with it, graphically enjoying the best sex of his life. Back in Jericho, when Davis starts to have second thoughts about The Store’s operations, Newman King arrives with a surprise.
A video of Davis’s encounter. The lights remained off during Davis’s interlude that night at corporate headquarters, but the video shows everything very clearly: the woman Davis had sex with was his daughter, Sam (Little doesn’t make clear whether or not Sam knew who she was having sex with, and I’m inclined to believe she wasn’t told). King informs Davis that a copy of the tape will be sent to Davis’s wife if he continues to entertain thoughts of undermining Store policies.
In an act of attrition, Davis comes clean to his wife (about the infidelity anyway, he doesn’t say who with). His wife refuses to watch the video, and while their marriage is damaged, the two stay together. With the threat of blackmail now gone, Davis realizes how corrupted he had become.
He sets out to contact all the other managers of the Stores across America. They are men like him. Men who opposed The Store but were seduced by King’s offer to run their own Store. Davis convinces them to wholly remake each Store by firing employees loyal to King, changing inventory to allow local businesses to still thrive, and removing all Store policies that are illegal and horrifying.
Ironically, the plan works because of Newman King’s own adherence to corporate law: every manager has an ironclad contract giving them total control of their Store. King can rage all he wants, but he can’t overrule his own Managers.
In the end, the revolt is King’s undoing. He shows up at Davis’s Store, sick and dying, and tries to kill Davis, but The Store’s Night Managers—a breed of undead people who wander the aisles at night checking inventory and restocking—turn on King and knife him to death. They are not loyal to King, but rather to Davis, who has total control within his own Store (there’s a funny kind of federal vs state power motif running through this story).
The novel closes with a young couple driving through the backwoods of Alaska where they come upon a tiny store they’ve never seen before: The Market. Inside is a terrifying proprietor who looks much too much like Newman King.
The Store succeeds on every level. It can be read purely as a slowly creeping horror story, or it can be enjoyed for its blatant but wholly effective satire. In this latter sphere, The Store is the most enjoyable and wicked work of its kind that I’ve read since the masterful novel The Ax by Donald Westlake. Both books are on a very short, very special shelf.