I think I read this in middle school to high school, which places it in the mid to late 90s. It was in English. The protagonist was realizing that a particular office building, I think in the United States, had an unusually high fatality rate. He explained the concept of "sick building syndrome", a real-life condition where people who work in large buildings have a higher illness rate with the reason ranging from bad HVAC systems spreading mold and bacteria to fluorescent lighting causing our brains to not have normal chemical levels to the increased exposure to other human beings who feel forced to come to work even when sick because they can't afford to miss work. As he explores various mundane factors that might lead into the high rate of sickness and death, he starts to consider the possibility that the architecture was actively malevolent and, near the end of the story, as he tries to write up his results, he finds that the computer breaks down, pens break in his hand, etc, with the implication being that the building doesn't want him to warn others, and culminating with him trying to escape the building but finding himself feeling less and less well.

I don't remember if the protagonist survives. I've thought enough about how it might have ended that I have distinct memories of him surviving and of him dying in the process of trying to escape. I don't think that ghosts, curses, or magic were seriously considered by the protagonist. At first, he thinks it's something mundane. By the end of the story, he's convinced there's something more, that the building has evolved its malevolence towards humanity, or that some confluence of factors just means that the problem will keep getting worse. I don't think there was any sort of real antagonist behind it all, no evil artificial intelligence, vengeful first, sadistic architect, etc, just something that happened as a result of the building design.

Just to clear off a few likely candidates, it was an office building as I remember it, not a hotel, and the focus was on a general antagonism to humanity, not targeting any one person. Objects didn't fly around on their own. It was more of an... entropic attack, I guess. Things just didn't work right. People were ill more often, basically dying of "natural causes" instead of accidents. And it was definitely in an office building of some sort, of a modern build with multiple floors.

  • Is this different from a haunted building? Is a "psychic residue" different from a ghost?
    – user14111
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 23:15
  • 1
    shrug I just remember there being no clear ghosts or magic. There's never a clear "this is the villain" moment and I think he still thinks there's a scientific explanation by the end.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 1:06
  • Gridiron by Philip Kerr ? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gridiron_(novel)
    – Pat Dobson
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:05
  • @danny3414: I do remember it as a high-rise type of building. I don't remember computer controlled heating and cooling, but it's possible.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:10
  • @patdobson No malevolent a.i. that I remember.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:11

3 Answers 3


"Wage Slaves", by Christopher Fowler? Fantasticfiction.com says this was published in 1997. I read it in Fowler's collection Personal Demons, published 1998. This Goodreads page shows the cover and lists the short stories. The first "review" in that link describes "Wage Slaves" thus:

Wage slaves - a man starts working at a completely computerized, self regulated company and office building where all the workers behave strangely.

My memory of "Wage Slaves" is a bit hazy, but it matches your description much better than "Colony" and "Inanimate Objection", which I've also read. Good fits include the lighting, mould, and illness due to increased exposure to other humans, and the trouble with the computer(s).

I suspect that the office may have been in London rather than the US — Fowler loves the city, and sets a lot of his writing there. However, that could be easily missed, as there wasn't much action set outside the building.

Also, I seem to remember that in the end, the protagonist gets trapped and killed when the building's fire defences trigger, the steel fire doors close, and fire-suppression gases are released. I could be confusing that part with another story, though.

Checking on Google, I find that Fowler also wrote a short book called Breathe: see this Goodreads. It's listed as first published 2004, too late for you, but maybe it's an adaptation of "Wage Slaves".

To quote the description:

An original and horrific slice of urban terror from one of the masters of the genre... All is not well at SymaxCorp. The work is piled high, people are toiling overnight to meet deadlines, and the supervisors are keeping their beady eyes on everyone. But staff are complaining of feeling sick, and the last health and safety officer disappeared one evening never to be seen again. It's down to new boy Ben, together with temp Miranda, kick-boxing Meera and overweight June to try and get to the bottom of the problem. As colleagues are progressively transformed into mindless, blood crazed zombies, Ben and his friends discover that there really is something in the air...

I'll quote "Soho_Black"'s summary:

It’s Ben Harper’s first day as the Health and Safety Officer at SymaxCorp. His predecessor left his job suddenly about three weeks previously although the evidence suggests that he never left the building. Unused to the corporate world, having lied his way into the job, his suspicions aren’t immediately aroused by a large number of staff apparently suffering with health problems and puts the strange magnetic forces that work on the building down to interference from all the computers in the office. By the end of his first day, he’s starting to realise that things aren’t quite how they should be. By Friday of his first week, it’s all gone very wrong indeed.
  • And Fowler's Personal Demons is a book I remember reading...
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 10:21
  • I picked up a copy via the Internet Archive and did a quick scanthrough, and I think you have it. The plotline is right, and I would have read it in that timeline, as referenced in someone finding my vague memory of "Christmas Forever" at scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/117059/…
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 11:24
  • Awarding you another bounty as I run into this again.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 11:47

I am unconvinced that it isn’t “Inanimate Objection” by H. Chandler Elliott. I just reread it also in The Mammoth Book of Science Fiction, and I do see similarities. None of the “accidents” were limited to the “institutional” patient rooms or medical tables of the institution. They were all involving office and home tools, like coffee pots.

Mental institutions have offices. They do! (One might even say they have OFFICES.) The doctors in the story used the OFFICES at work and that is where the mishaps mishappened:

“I don't think there was any sort of real antagonist behind it all, no evil artificial intelligence, vengeful first, sadistic architect, etc, just something that happened as a result of the building design.”

He found Major Burnside's fantasy distraction…. So he collected instances: The dollar pencil that dropped on its rubber and vaulted into the plumbless depths of a hot-air register; the tine rip in the sleeve of his white hacket that snagged on the tap of a coffee-urn, causing him to slop a cup of scalding coffee over trousers and ankle; the page of a vital report that blew off his worktable and slid craftily behind a newspaper in the wastebasket; and a dozen more commonplace acts of malice by familiar objects.

“and the focus was on a general antagonism to humanity, not targeting any one person. Objects didn't fly around on their own. It was more of an... entropic attack, I guess. Things just didn't work right.”

“Look here sir,” he began. “Gathering data is the fist step, but you’ve got to have some general theory. Ruling out literal Gremlins, why should objects be actively hostile?” The Major looked up from a soldering job, with a twinkle: “If I give you a theory, will you be the least bit more persuaded? All right: why do we like organization, control, applied power?” Carl reflected: “Oh . . . I suppose it’s the nature of life to extend itself by organization of the environment – tools and so on.” “Excellent. Well, the mass of the Universe behaves in exactly the opposite way – disorganizing, devolving. Any reason why this much vaster process shouldn’t have – well, a sort of counter-life? Well, then, to it, our organizing activities would be equivalent to fires, contrary winds, rust. Up to a few thousand years ago, the effects of life were trivial – a little photosynthesis and burrowdigging that mattered no more to counter-life than geological erosion matters to us. But now man is organizing matter and energy on an expanding scale – a regular epidemic of disasters to counter-life. So, of course, it resists and fights back.” “But how does it work?” he asked. I mean, we know the laws of mechanics, and they don’t leave scope for free action.” “Oh, don’t they? We operate by chemistry, and yet we feel we have plenty of freedom.”

“People were ill more often, basically dying of "natural causes" instead of accidents.”

After the main protagonist’s going through so many “accidents” trying to help his very sick wife, all in his office and at home that they took several pages to describe, as he slipped on the blood from his stepping on broken glass that very nearly sent him over his bathroom window sill,

Next morning, the paper said: EIGHTEEN DIE IN FREAK STORM. There were accounts of linemen slipping to death, highway crashes, frozen tramps, fractured skulls.

  • Unfortunately, what matters is that the person who asked the question is convinced otherwise. "I did indeed read the Archive.org copy and indeed, it is not the correct one." Commented Jun 17, 2019 at 1:09

"Colony" by Philip K. Dick.

Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder

(As I read it with Robert Silverberg's subtitle "I Trusted the Rug Completely".)

One office furnishing:

The towel wrapped around his wrist, yanking him against the wall. Rough cloth pressed over his mouth and nose. He fought wildly, pulling away. All at once the towel let go. He fell, sliding to the floor, his head striking the wall. Stars shot around him; then violent pain.

Another office furnishing:

On the floor lay Captain Taylor, his face blue, his eyes gaping. Only his head and his feet were visible. A red and white scatter rug was wrapped around him, squeezing, straining tighter and tighter.

And yes, of course they were not believed.

Commander Morrison held the towel up to the light. "It's just an ordinary towel! It couldn't have attacked you." "Of course not", Hall agreed. "We've put these objects through all the tests we can think of. They're just what they're supposed to be, all elements unchanged. Perfectly stable non-organic objects. It's impossible that any of these could have come to life and attacked us."

  • 2
    That's not the one I'm thinking of. There were no animated objects, just a building which killed people who stayed in it too long, making them sicken and die.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 21:53

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