Back in 2001, I was writing a horror novel set around Slab City and the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. To be called The Slab, the book would deal with the horror of Alzheimer’s disease, and the terrible things that human beings do to one another, in addition to the supernatural terrors first represented by strange red mushrooms with white spots.
Then September 11 came. The Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon was hit.
For a while it seemed that fictional horror couldn’t begin to measure up to the real thing.
But as the months wore on, the horror changed. The thing that had been done to us—the attack on our country and our values by terrorists from across the sea—remained awful. What was new was what we were doing to each other in response.
Sikhs were attacked, even killed, simply because they wore turbans and had dark skin. Mosques were under assault. Racists and the small-minded everywhere had new license to hate people because of their hue and their beliefs. Civil rights were thrown by the wayside. Air travel became a nightmare. We would be going to war soon, and we would give up many of the traits that had defined us as a nation.
Gradually I realized that people being people, they responded to terrorism in a variety of ways, many of them unthinking and unfeeling. We had been attacked and though many were heroic and brave and strong, others were horrible.
I turned back to the book. Without altering the original focus, I set it during the days I was living through, those strange, emotionally wrought days after the attacks. I could hardly do otherwise; American life, it seemed, had changed in ways large and small, and any work of fiction that didn’t take 9/11 into account would not be true. And truth is as important in fiction as in nonfiction, if not more so.
Once I decided that, the writing of the book went fast. The book that resulted is a good one—and yes, writers can say that about their own work, especially when it’s true. I wouldn’t say it was flawless, but it has plenty of scares and gripping suspense and many vivid characters and rich description and, perhaps most important, a sense of wonder, of awe. It contains one sentence that I consider the best single sentence I’ve ever written. It’s a book of which I remain proud, a decade later.
If you read Missing White Girl, River Runs Red, and Cold Black Hearts, The Slab is spiritual kin to those. And with its California setting, it completes the horrific tour of the US/Mexico borderlands, Texas to California.
I finished it in 2002, and in 2003 it was published by IDW Publishing, a small press (bigger now, but small then) that mostly published comic books. The story of that deal is unique in itself—I went to lunch with the president and publisher of IDW to pitch him the book, but he went to lunch with me to pitch me a position as IDW’s first editor-in-chief. By the time the lunch was done, we had agreed to do both.
IDW did a great job with the book. Tommy Lee Edwards provided a cover painting and brilliant interior illustrations, following a trip we took together to the real Slab City that is yet another story (one you can ask me about in person sometime). The IDW staff knocked themselves out to make it a beautiful piece of work.
But they were a small press, not known for prose, and it was pretty far outside their wheelhouse. We tried to sell it into the book markets, but for the most part, it wasn’t read.
Terrific book, nicely published. Nobody ever knew about it except for those people I could reach myself, and a few random folks who happened across it in comic shops or those few bookstores that carried it.
It was nicely reviewed in a few places. Rick Kleffel, who writes The Agony Column at Trashotron.com, wrote:
“Novels of place can have a special hold on the horror reader. Jeff Mariotte stakes out his own territory in 'The Slab', a prime piece of guns-a-blazing horror that surprises with a quirky mixture of subtlety and two-fisted terror. Set in the Imperial Valley near the Salton Sea, Mariotte creates a miasmic aura of escalating violence and ugliness. His characters kick in with clarity, and he maneuvers them across the bleak landscape with skill. So far, you have a nicely sculpted 1980's style horror novel. But then Mariotte plays his trump card by placing the novel shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. It's a surprisingly effective gambit, giving the novel unexpected shadings and depths. Better yet, Mariotte never overplays this hand. 'The Slab' is just as fun as you hope it will be, and far more resonant than you'd expect. With all the buildup, Mariotte even makes an effort to pay off his readers in kind. He might not quite manage it, but you'll be hard pressed to hold it against him.”
“Mariotte does a fantastic job at conveying the atmosphere of hopelessness and stubbornness that populates the Slab. The pictures he creates in the reader's mind will match precisely those found on the website for the real inhabitants of the slab, www.slabcity.org. Overlaying all of this is the post-9/11 malaise of suspicion, aggressiveness and terror. Mariotte manages both thought-provoking juxtaposition and lizard-brain satisfaction as he plays out the large cast of characters across this hard and relentless landscape. His serial killers are just original enough to catch readers by surprise and he neatly ties together the threads of random magic, post-traumatic stress syndrome, a subtle supernatural invasion and an upper-class attack on a lower class landscape.”
A reviewer for CreatureCorner.com wrote:
“Mariotte draws us deep into the character’s thoughts and motivations, making them real individuals. He deals well with how people felt in the weeks following the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., adding a troubling sense of realism to the tale. The Slab is 90% suspense thriller and 10% horror novel and my only complaint with it was the fact that it took so long to reveal the horror at the tale’s heart. A good, solid read.”
And in Comics Buyer’s Guide, Tony Isabella wrote:
“The horror builds slowly in The Slab, but it builds steadily. You know something is wrong and you keep turning those pages until the big reveal. You even get some clues as to the nature of that very wrong something. I put most of it together before the reveal, but Mariotte still had a few surprises, an exciting climax, and a satisfying ending for me.”
Nice things. But the reason someone sits down and writes a book is to have it be read by other people.
Now I need to make a confession. I used to be an early adopter. I was there for quadrophonic sound, Betamax, the Atari 5200. Those were all of superior quality compared to the things that won out. I still prefer my music on vinyl over CD, and CD over Mp3. And when it comes to books, I think the tactile, sensory experience of reading a physical book is far preferable to the e-book experience, except for people who need to be able to adjust text size or who need to store a lot of books in limited space.
I’m slow, but I do catch on. And now there’s this thing called the Internet, and there are e-books, and it occurred to me that The Slab might have a new life as an e-book. I’ve published it on a few different sites, and priced it considerably lower than the $16.99 the print version costs (though to get Tommy Lee’s wonderful artwork, you still have to read it in print. I highly recommend that you do).
Please have a look, tell your friends, tell your friends’ friends. I don’t think you (or they) will be disappointed.
Here's the cover: