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The Slab

Jeff Mariotte

IDW Publishing

US Trade Paperback First

ISBN 1-932-38207-0

Publication Date: 09-10-2003

288 Pages; $16.99

Date Reviewed: 09-07-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003




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.

The main character in 'The Slab' is the setting of the title. It's a stretch of land just outside the Salton Sea, literally huge slabs of cement left over from a one-time military installation. Here, hundreds of those who have fallen off the edge of our economy live in makeshift houses, trailers, tents and built-up automobiles. Carter Haynes, a greedy real-estate developer has just bought the whole shebang from the government. He'll need to move these freedom-loving squatters. Ken Butler is the sheriff who may have to do the moving. Penny Rice is an anti-war protestor roaming the nearby military ordnance testing range. Harold Shipp is a retiree slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's who lives with his wife on the Slab. Butler, Rice and Shipp, are all veterans of different wars who experienced a brief bit of magic during their time in the service. Across this landscape roams a group of serial killers. It's another day on the Slab.

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, 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.

This is a great book to read on an airplane. It's hard to put down once you get the gist of where Mariotte is going. His jump-cut narrative keeps the pages turning efficiently, and his characters are fun to be around even if some of them are truly repugnant. The supernatural is nicely underplayed, with some ugly mushrooms that are sprouting where they have no right to be. There's something big going on, trying to get out, in the best tradition of Lovecraftian fiction.

Unfortunately, when all the threads come together, the whole is a bit less than sum of the parts. While I love a good monster as much as the next horror reader, Mariotte's denouement is disappointing, especially in comparison to what came earlier. Subtlety is the first casualty of the finale, though to be fair, it all makes perfect sense and the quality of Mariotte's prose remains high. But Lovecraft succeeded precisely because he knew when to let the reader's imagination run free. Mariotte shows us everything in close up. While he does a bang-up job, it's a letdown compared to the evocation of unease which preceded it. 'The Slab' offers a finely presented sense of place and time -- and a hell of a good time reading well-written horror. It allows us to see ourselves as we were not so long ago, and to connect with those selves while remaining true to the present. The violence is still escalating. There's no finish in sight. There is no denouement, and that's what's most frightening.