Book Club Nominees

6 Workplace Horrors (as if the workplace itself wasn’t horrifying enough)

by @drthoss, curator of HOWLS book club nominees for July’s “9-5 Horror” category

Work has always been seen as a necessary part of life. Even in the Bible, God says to Adam, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, til thou return to the ground.’ A day’s labour was a way of repenting the Fall. But look closer: ‘til thou return to the ground.’ Work never ceases; toil never stops. That was once a good thing. A Godly thing. Only now, in the monotonous drudgery, the grey mornings, the tired, get-me-a-coffee Mondays, do we see what it does to our minds and our bodies. We grow fatigued and glassy-eyed, become exhausted, can barely focus. Working under late capitalism means there’s no time but work time. 

In this list we will see how the monsters make us work, and even how work makes monsters of us. Sometimes we get to gaze from behind the plastic eyes of late capitalist monsters, and in others we can see reflected our own complicity with these monsters. There is a great beast in this world that eats everything, and try as we might, there is no way of escaping it. 

Cover of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Cover shows a black and white image of a cockroach head emerging from a business suit, complete with tie.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka 

With it’s startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction.


The Metamorphosis is a story all about the horrors of living under a capitalist system. Gregor Samsa’s first worry, for instance, when he wakes up as a bug, is that he’s going to be late for work. Kafka predicted everything about the modern condition as it is today, where the work never stops, where there are always incomprehensible and unknowable authorities looking to profit from you. 

There’s no greater sense of dread than reading this story for me. It’s self-hating, self-loathing, self-annihilating. It’s the horror story of what happens to a life when all one does is work. Gregor Samsa was made into a bug long before he woke up as one. 

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Cover of The Office Plays by Adam Bock. Cover shows a black and white image of a corded telephone receiver, hanging straight down.

The Office Plays by Adam Bock 

At the start of a typical day in the Northeast Office, Beverly deals effortlessly with ringing phones and her colleague’s romantic troubles. But the appearance of a charming rep from the Central Office disrupts the friendly routine. And as the true nature of the company’s business becomes apparent, The Receptionist raises disquieting, provocative questions about the consequences of complicity with evil.

When a group of temps try to discover the secrets that lurk in the hidden crevices of their workplace, they realize they would rather believe in gossip and rumors than face dangerous realities.


The Office Plays assumes our guilt and our complicity in a system that directly takes advantage of people, that brutalises people, and asks to what extent do we use the hum-drum of the everyday as a way of distancing ourselves from the utter violence and horror that goes on behind the curtain of the workplace. 

Bock’s writing goes after this everyday in its very style, too; I want to call it elliptical. Characters interrupt one another, some never finish their sentences. And so in these unfinished thoughts, these voids, these lacunae, there festers some kind of darkness, and we try to peek at what exactly it is they’re avoiding and ignoring, but the conversation moves on and we’re left wondering, guessing, thinking. 

They’re weird plays, atmosphere-heavy and loveable, and have been described as dark comedy, because, again, all we can do is laugh at our inability to do anything. 

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Cover of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. .Cover shows an image of a white, clean cut business man wearing a grey suit. Image is from the neck up. The man has a very serious expression on his face.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis 

Patrick Bateman is twenty-six and he works on Wall Street. He is handsome, sophisticated, charming and intelligent. He is also a psychopath. Taking us to head-on collision with America’s greatest dream—and its worst nightmare—American Psycho is bleak, bitter, black comedy about a world we all recognise but do not wish to confront.


In this list we’re going to see a lot from those who suffer from the system we’re in, who are turned into bugs, who are turned into soulless husks, and so I thought it made sense that we have a book from the perspective of the beast. Ellis’s novel, violent and blood-thirsty, takes a critical look at the beginning of late capitalism, and so American Psycho is an indictment of everything rotten and awful about the greed-is-good, Reaganite, Gordon-Gekko 80s. 

If Kafka asserts that working endlessly turns us into bugs, then Ellis asserts our obsession with things will turn us into things. To Bateman, there is no end to what is an object. Everything is his. He can kill, rape, brutalise, torture, maul anything he likes. He has no consequences; he’s rich. 

It goes without saying there’s a trigger warning. I like to segment the violence into two parts: discursive violence, and physical violence. The physical violence is body horror at its most vile, and they do go on for a couple pages. But the physical violence actually accounts for very little in the book. It’s the discursive violence that permeates this novel. Bateman and his droogs are misogynist, racist, homophobic, you name it. L. A. Times wrote that a Simon & Schuster employee even said that the physical violence later on was  ‘sort of mild compared to the first four pages of the book’.

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Cover of Teatro Grottesco. Cover shows an image of what seems like a paper silhouette of a puppet on strings, against a paper background. The paper in the image for both the silhouette and background is in shades of orange, brown, yellow, and some red.

Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti 

This collection features tormented individuals who play out their doom in various odd little towns, as well as in dark sectors frequented by sinister and often blackly comical eccentrics. The cycle of narratives that includes the title work of this collection, for instance, introduces readers to a freakish community of artists who encounter demonic perils that ultimately engulf their lives.


I always think of dirt when I think of Teatro Grottesco, of IV drips filled with urine, of rank needles slipping into skin, of derelict, abandoned neighbourhoods that shady governments long ago forgot. These stories always revolve around the world-as-it-is, around the terror of being poor, the horror of working everyday, of even having no control over one’s own life as a citizen.  In some stories, unalive, bland, petrified stores infect neighbourhoods, in others writers become deeply aware of the way in which they make content out of their existence, and so their own life is merely a product they can sell. As per Ligotti’s favourite motif, he returns always to the puppets and manikins. What better image for the worker, the consumer, the citizen, in 21st century life? We’re always being manipulated by something, aren’t we? Capitalism inculcates even on a libidinal level; it coaches our desire toward products. No one is born wanting a smoke, that desire is conditioned. Buy, buy, buy; work, work, work. 

It’s rather amazing that such a collection should arrive pre-2008, the banking collapse, with how horrific and terrifying some of these interminable jobs and positions that Ligotti has his narrators within. Even when the stories are not exclusively about the workplace, it’s about cultural constructions and our confinement within this culture. There’s no way out, Ligotti says, and whatever looks like an exit is always a way back to the entrance.

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Cover of My Work Is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti. Cover shows an images of a man in a business suit, a clock, and the wall of a building, all superimposed on one another.

My Work is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti 

When junior manager Frank Dominio is suddenly demoted and then sacked it seems there was more than a grain of truth to his persecution fantasies. But as he prepares to even the score with those responsible for his demise, he unwittingly finds an ally in a dark and malevolent force that grants him supernatural powers. Frank takes his revenge in the most ghastly ways imaginable – but there will be a terrible price to pay once his work is done.


Another Ligotti? I like Ligotti. What can I say? There are three tales in this, but I’ll speak about the novella, which is the bulk of the text. 

Supposedly written after his experiences with office life, Ligotti bestows unto the world the tormented, depressed, anhedonic narrator Frank Dominio (notice the parallel between the names?) We find ourselves, then, going through the drudgery of everyday office life, of the monotonous routines of the quotidian, as Frank works for a nameless, vague corporation whose real purpose is just as illusory. There’s this pervasive atmosphere, smog-like, that hangs over the text, a feeling that we share Frank’s plight, that he is not alone in his struggle. 

And Frank is just plain done with the world, with his job. So he wants to destroy it. It’s hard not to empathise. It might be better to talk of this book as a kind of anti-capitalist manifesto one might find in the basement, coveted away, bound in banker-flesh. Ligotti advocates here for mutually assured destruction. If the world has destroyed everything about who we are, then why not destroy the world? 

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Cover of Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. Cover is designed to look like an IKEA catalogue and shows a modular cubicle style brown wood bookcase, a potted palm, a yellow couch, a black and white checked rug, and rounded triangle shaped coffee and side tables in a light brown wood finish. On the back wall are decoratively hung black and white framed images. If you look closely, the images, when put together, display two hands on either side of a screaming face; it looks like a person is trapped in the wall. The cover is labelled with names of the furniture as well as prices.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix 

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking. […] A traditional haunted house story in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Horrorstör is designed to retain its luster and natural appearance for a lifetime of use. Pleasingly proportioned with generous French flaps and a softcover binding, Horrorstör delivers the psychological terror you need in the elegant package you deserve.


As if working retail wasn’t already horrifying enough, dealing day-in day-out with half-crazed, consumer-mad customers who just want you to check the back one more time for an item that has been out of stock for months, Grady Hendrix takes the Ikea store, which in the novel is called Orsk, and situates it as the centre of horror. Even the physical book is meant to replicate the glossy pages of an Ikea catalogue. Chapters will open with an illustration of a model, and later on these very same pieces of kitsch furniture might become the object of terror for our unsuspecting characters. 

There is always an element of humour involved, too, in such a mixing of worlds, of the banal and the terrifying. Managers try to console possessed intruders with corporate babble, and then the low-paid, tired, overworked staff who are thrown into all this mess cannot believe that at the end of their shift, they have to deal with a supernatural threat, too.

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And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti. Join HOWL Society on Monday, July 19, 2021 to begin discussion!

@drthoss loves anything that distracts him from The Thing That Haunts Us All and is from Liverpool. He is an aspiring writer that hopes one day art will be made for the hell of it. He goes by @RSLjnr on twitter, where he complains about money a lot. 

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