What could be more romantic than a department store? Think of the riches on display! Around each corner something new and enchanting; here and there, hidden mysteries. Small wonder that stores like Eaton’s, Sears, and Woolworth’s have endured for years and seem likely to endure for many, many more. [Editor’s note: James, I have news for you …] Small wonder that more than a few authors have set their stories in department stores.
Here are five examples.
Hector Owen of Rain in the Doorway is a typical Thorne Smith protagonist: male, middle-aged, miserable, but far too timid to do anything that might break with convention. This all changes the night he seeks shelter from a torrential downpour in a department store doorway. He’s dragged backwards through what he thought was a locked door…
Once inside, he finds himself in a department store staffed by eccentric lunatics. He’s drawn into a world of alcohol, decadence, and as much licentiousness as the author could slip past censors in the more straitlaced 1930s. It’s not a safe or reasonable world. It is, however, far more satisfactory than the one in which Owen used to live.
There should be a stock Thorne Smith warning, which is one part “it was a different time” and one part “do not attempt to emulate the behaviour of his characters unless you desire to expire of cirrhosis of the liver at an early age.” (Smith himself, who reportedly drank as much as his characters, died of a heart attack at the advanced age of forty-two.) I suspect that Smith, like his characters, was a desperately unhappy fellow—one whose sharp sense of humor was channelled into comic fantasies about nebbishes who break free of miserable conformity.
The jaded poet of John Collier’s story “Evening Primrose” is a more determined character. Rather than meekly submit to bourgeois convention until chance rescues him, he deliberately chooses to hide away in Bracey’s Department Store. There, all the necessities of life can be found; this permits him the freedom to write without the distraction of a job.
Unfortunately for Collier’s poet, he is not the first person to have this idea: Bracey’s hosts a thriving hidden community, a well-established culture with dark traditions the poet will come to know all too well. The poet also finds something he wasn’t looking for: love…for all the good it does him.
Readers looking for the sort of comfort food Smith offered probably shouldn’t turn to Collier for more of the same. Bracey’s may be filled with denizens as eccentric as the people who befriend Owen but alas, Collier isn’t quite as sympathetic towards his protagonists as was Smith. This is altogether a less comforting story.
Ava, the protagonist of Nino Cipri’s upcoming novella Finna, is driven into LitenVärld by simple economic necessity. Ava likes eating and living indoors, and for that she needs a job. She may be third from the bottom in LitenVärld’s pecking order; the store may be a soulless big box store; she may be rather inconveniently working in the same place as her ex Jules—but at least she has an income.
To Ava’s astonishment, LitenVärld has an undocumented feature, one that provides certain patrons with unrequested transportation to adjacent universes. When patrons vanish, someone has to follow them into these alien universes to retrieve them. Someone expendable, like Jules. Someone expendable, like Ava….
If there’s a better way to process relationship issues with an alienated ex than by being forced to explore hostile, dangerous parallel worlds with them, I don’t know what it would be. The important thing here is that Ava and Jules are willing to risk their lives on behalf of the LitenVärld stockholders. There is, of course, no greater reason to risk death than to ensure that a wealthy stranger on the far side of the world can afford their eighth Ferrari.
Devin of Dayna Ingram’s Eat Your Heart Out may be as poverty-stricken as Ava, which is why she works at Ashbee’s Furniture Outlet. At least she still has a significant other—her increasingly aloof girlfriend Carmelle. What might otherwise be a delightful exploration of just how long one can ignore infidelity is transformed by two seemingly unrelated events; the arrival at Ashbee’s of Renni Ramirez, a famed horror film star on whom Devin has a monster crush, and the sudden appearance of a horde of zombies. Hungry zombies
With Carmelle trapped in her shop by swarming zombies, and the U.S. government keen on containing the crisis at any cost, it’s up to Devin and Renni to rescue Devin’s philandering sweetie and escape the cordon. Provided nobody gets bitten first…
Really, it’s impossible to go wrong by using swarms of ravening monsters to work out romantic issues.
Savertown USA in Erica L. Satifka’s Stay Crazy doesn’t offer protagonist Em much in the way of pay or happiness, but it’s not as if Em has options. Clear Falls, Pennsylvania is in the heart of the rust belt and Em herself is still dealing with the paranoid schizophrenia that ended her college days; a job at a soulless big box store is the best offer available.
It’s just too bad that this particular Savertown USA was built over a dimensional rift. Thanks to her psychiatric history, Em isn’t inclined to take a voice in her head warning her about the fate of the world at face value. Nor would the people around Em place much faith in her claims if Em did reveal the dire warnings she is receiving. As is so often the case, it’s up to an expendable clerk and whatever allies she can scrounge to face down danger and save the world.
No doubt you have your own favourites in the ever-expanding world of department store-related speculative fiction. Feel free to mention them in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.