A week or so before I wrote this review, I was in the mood for a zombie novel. I had originally planned to buy another one but, after seeing mixed reviews of it online, I instead remembered the excellent “Tomes Of The Dead” series by Abaddon Books (that I first discovered at some point during the late 2000s).
Since the last time I read one of these novels was in 2013 (Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, if anyone is interested), I decided to take a look at them again. And, after looking at a few of them, I ended up buying a second-hand copy of Weston Ochse’s 2010 novel “Empire Of Salt”.
So, let’s take a look at “Empire Of Salt”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in a diner in the run-down Californian town of Bombay Beach, next to a stagnant inland sea that is full of nothing but rotting fish. After shooing away the local drunk, the diner’s owner – an old man called Lazlo- goes out onto the beach to observe and document the mysterious green lights that flicker under the water at night. However, something is lurking nearby and he is quickly attacked by it.
Some time later, Lazlo’s remaining family travel to Bombay Beach and decide to keep the diner open. Although Lazlo’s son Patrick has had a tragic life that has driven him to drink, Lazlo’s teenage grandchildren – Natasha and Derrick – seem to fit into the strange, dilapidated town fairly well once they meet a local teenager called Veronica. She gives them a tour of the town, including the homes of the town’s more eccentric residents and a mysterious “desalination plant” further along the coast.
But, then, the child of a local Amish family goes missing. An old woman is trapped inside her trailer by a mysterious intruder. Natasha spots a retired scientist in one of the trailers dissecting a decaying hand. A disabled Korean War veteran has some kind of creature chained up in his garage. Needless to say, things quickly get a lot stranger and creepier….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… Wow 🙂 Not only is this a zombie novel that is actually scary, but it is also one of the most atmospheric, unique, vivid and creative books that I’ve read in a while.
The best way to describe it would be that it’s like a cross between the Simpsons episode “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2“, the TV show “Twin Peaks“, the “Return Of The Living Dead” movies, “Creepshow” , possibly some kind of suspenseful Hitchcock film and so much more….
In other words, this book is like a more intelligent version of a 1980s horror movie, but set in the present day. And it is awesome 🙂 Normally when reviewing a horror novel, I start by talking about the horror elements of it but I’ll start by talking about the atmosphere of this book because it is brilliant.
Not only does this book vividly describe the strange town of Bombay Beach in a way that makes it actually seem like a physical place but it also is the kind of intriguingly strange place that will haunt your daydreams after you put the book down. Seriously, the novel’s setting alone is a masterpiece – it is fascinating, depressing, welcoming, hostile, unique and humdrum at the same time.
My comparison with the 1980s wasn’t made frivolously either. Since the town is so remote and so poor, it is basically stuck in the 1980s. Mobile phone reception is zero and, since most of the richer people moved out when the nearby sea started rotting, the only people left are too poor, too drunk and/or too eccentric to leave. So, this novel has a real 80s-style vibe to it, whilst still being a very modern novel. Which brings me on to the horror elements of the story.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a zombie novel that is actually scary. I didn’t think that this was possible, but it is. For the first half of the novel, a lot of the horror comes from ominous suspense. This novel has an eerily mysterious, ominously fascinating and creepily claustrophobic atmosphere that will haunt you between reading sessions. When the zombies do appear in the earlier parts of the book, they aren’t shuffling skeletal things – but ominous green, slimy, ichor-filled Lovecraftian creatures of the deep.
A lot of the earlier scenes of horror aren’t the kind of ultra-gory moments you’d expect to see in a zombie novel – they’re more like something from an old 1950s horror comic. In other words, they’re suspenseful, they’re mysterious and they contain a dark and twisted version of America that can only usually appear in a comic book.
And, yes, this novel really does build up the suspense perfectly. From the start, you know that something is wrong with the town and that the mysterious “desalination plant” has something to do with it. So far, so predictable. However, the way that this all plays out is nail-bitingly gripping, creepily unpredictable and ominously fascinating. Then, when the zombies do eventually appear in force, the novel turns into an equally nail-biting action-thriller story that is filled with brutal moments of tragedy and horror.
All of this creepy suspense is also complemented by many other different types of horror too – including economic horror, gory horror, tragic horror, conspiracy theory horror, drug-based horror, war horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and so much more. Seriously, this is a horror novel 🙂
The characters in this novel are, in a word, superb. It would take too long to describe all of them, but they’re all interesting and unique people who might be strange or eccentric, but have been made this way by the circumstances of their lives. This novel, like many great TV shows, has a real sense of community to it – whilst also making no bones about the fact that these poor, eccentric characters are society’s rejects and misfits who have been let down by the grand vision of the American Dream that the town of Bombay Beach once symbolised.
The writing and third-person narration in this novel is also excellent too. The novel is written in a reasonably modern way, which still manages to be as descriptive as an older novel. The narration is also filled with moments of humour, sarcasm, satire and other such things that really help it to feel vivid and alive. Seriously, I absolutely loved the writing in this novel 🙂 At times, it even comes close to the stratospheric standard of Billy Martin‘s writing, whilst also containing subtle hints of writers like Raymond Chandler too.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel is spent building up suspense and these segments work reasonably well since there’s usually some mystery and/or creepy event that holds the reader’s attention. Likewise, the later segments of the novel are suitably intense and fast-paced too. My only possible criticism is the ending, which almost seems like the vague set-up for a sequel.
As for the length, the novel is about 310 pages long – which is fairly ok for a modern novel. It never really felt too long and, although an actual 1980s horror writer would probably be able to tell the story in 200-250 pages, I didn’t mind spending extra time in the fascinatingly creepy town of Bombay Beach 🙂
In a way, I’d be tempted to call this novel timeless. Although, in a lot of respects, it really isn’t. Not only does a brief pre-tragedy reference to the town of Sandy Hook seem a little eerie when read these days, but this novel is also about the contrast between modern post-credit crunch America and old America.
The novel shows how some things never change (eg: two characters are traumatised, scarred veterans from old and modern wars), but also how a lot of the residents of the town are stuck in the past (eg: an Elvis impersonator, a 1960s-style hippie priestess etc..) because this is the only place they can call home. The town itself is, as I mentioned, is a faded shadow of it’s former 1950s heyday too. Seriously, for a novel about sea zombies, all of this stuff is ridiculously sophisticated 🙂
All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you like atmospheric, vivid, intelligent stories that are filled with intriguing characters and the kind of locations that linger in your imagination after you stop reading, then read this book. If you want a modern version of a 1980s horror movie, read this book. If you want a zombie story that is actually scary, then read this book. Even if you don’t like the zombie genre, read this book. It is a masterpiece.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.