I live in a house built in 1950. My wife and I bought the house from a young couple with a small child who were moving out of the area for work. I think they lived there for about five or six years, but I have no idea who lived in the house for the first fifty years of its existence. I have the stereotypical eccentric old busybody neighbor who has lived on the block since the house was built and so I’ve heard a few scattershot rumors over the years. I’ve heard a plumber built the house. I’ve heard that the unfinished attic was converted into the nice, finished two rooms that it is today by a teenage boy who wanted his own bedroom. My neighbor also told me that the kitchen and first-floor bathroom were remodeled – very well, I might add – by a man as a present for his wife while she was away for a few weeks. When she returned from her trip, she gave him a present as well: she told him that she was leaving him for the Native American lover she met while on travel.
None of us really has any idea what goes in our neighbors’ homes, or even in our friends’ and families’ homes when we aren’t around. We have a vague sense when people are home – we see lights, cars, people – we can see who takes care of their yard and who doesn’t appear to care, who gets a new car, or who leaves their trash cans at the curb too long. If we talk to our neighbors, we might know their names and occupations, and they might share some innocent gossip or news about other neighbors. If we’re especially close, we might occasionally have dinner over there or get a tour of their homes. But that’s different. Those visits are, we must admit, a kind of public performance. Those visits don’t really tell us much about the real family who lives there. What are their homes like when guests aren’t around, when it’s just them, their spouse, and their children? Is it the well-kempt, pleasant place it appears to be? Is the husband a tyrant in his own home? The wife a hectoring nag? The children ill-behaved, screaming menaces? And what was the last family like? What happened in the home a decade, two decades, or three ago? Anyone ever die in the house? A house like mine that’s sixty-two years old, well, it’s practically inevitable that someone died in there, or gave birth, or fell down the stairs, or beat their wife or kids, or suffered from an eventually fatal illness. But I really have no idea. I know that it’s a surprisingly well-maintained home, with no unpleasant surprises, and that means that most (all?) of the previous owners have cared enough to maintain it. But who were these people?
And that brings me to THE SLAB. It’s a novel about a house and, necessarily, about the people who built the house and the people who came to live in it over the years. Unlike my house, the house in THE SLAB has some unpleasant surprises for its inhabitants. It’s been home to a number of families, some young couples, some middle-aged, and some in their twilight years. It’s also a place that’s suffered more than its fair share of tragedies.
Some minor plot spoilers follow.
Buying a home is scary business. It’s a huge investment – probably the biggest ticket item most of us will ever purchase – and yet it almost has to be decided on a whim. Sure, you have some basic criteria for the house (rough location, number of bedrooms, if you’re willing to fix it up or not, etc.) but you’re essentially deciding on a home based on how you feel about the place after you’ve visited it a couple times. And then the real fun begins. You have to get someone to lend you the money to buy it unless you’re one of the rare few who can pay for a house with cash. You have to get the place inspected. Is it as nice as it seems? Are there hidden problems? Can you believe what the seller, or your buyer’s agent, or even the home inspector tells you? Most of those folks have major incentives to get you to buy the place no matter what. But what aren’t they telling you?
THE SLAB captures all those hopes and fears. In the case of the home in the novel, there’s a lot each new purchaser doesn’t know. It was constructed by a shady developer and things got violent right from the start. As time marched on, the place deteriorated. It was fixed up at times, and some of the problems were concealed from later purchasers. Some ugly people who did ugly things lived in the house. Not all of them, but enough to leave a, well, kind of a “residue” behind. This is an idea that has been explored at length by some other horror writers (I am think especially of Stephen King). It’s an attractive conceit: the emotions that we all experience don’t simply dissipate, they are absorbed, at least a little, by the places where they happen. The stronger the emotion, the more emotional residue they leave behind. And negative emotions – hate, fear, rage – leave behind very strong residues indeed. These things accumulate over the decades. They might even begin to influence, or attract, the same kinds of negative emotions and experiences. New residents of a home might find themselves unwittingly experiencing the same things past residents did. And in the case of 1066 Oleander Place, the home featured in THE SLAB, that’s not a good thing at all. I should also note that THE SLAB is set in Tamarind Valley, Michael R. Collings’ suburban Los Angeles setting for two other horror novels: THE HOUSE BEYOND THE HILL and STATIC! (clock on those links for my previous reviews). It’s not necessary to have read either of those works to enjoy THE SLAB fully, but knowing that there’s lots of other weirdness going on nearby adds a bit to the appeal of the novel.
THE SLAB is highly recommended. If you require non-stop gore and battles to the death between a plucky protagonist and an implacable and nigh-unbeatable creature from beyond the stars, then this is not the novel for you. But if you like slow-building and under-stated – but not at all boring – psychological horror, then you will enjoy THE SLAB immensely (and that under-stated elegance of the novel is why I have been vaguer than is typical for me about the specifics of the plot). This is a story about what most might think of as a mundane setting – just a simple tract house in a California suburb – and ordinary people. But it’s a story about what happens behind closed doors. And sometimes very bad things happen when we’re in the sanctity of our own homes. I liked this one a lot.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers