Review: Beneath the Salton Sea by Michael Paul Gonzalez


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Every memory is a recording.

Nothing about the Salton Sea is normal. The sand isn’t sand. Just piles and piles of desiccated bones. There are little pockets where life clings on, birds, reptiles, people. It’s an ecosystem of living things that rely on other living things too stubborn to leave. Life forcing itself on death, or maybe the other way around.

Dee and her wife Sharon find this out the hard way after making a quick stop at Salvation Mountain to film some b-roll and see the sights out in the middle of the vast nothing. A bizarre rumor of a “crack in the sky” from one of the locals sends them on the hunt for an abandoned yacht club— where they make a discovery that changes their lives forever, and those close to them as well.

Could you identify a loved one by their whisper?

Beneath the Salton Sea is a cosmic horror technological nightmare transcribing the raw honesty of what makes a family, what breaks them, the difficulties of communication, and the painful joy of memories.

If you knew this was the last thing I’d ever tell you, what would you want me to say?


I have been fascinated with the Salton Sea since I watched a documentary from 2004, narrated by John Waters, called Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea. In the documentary, they explain how the Salton Sea was a vacation destination in the 50s, a southern California desert Lake Tahoe, and the hot place to be. Due to ecological disaster, the place was abandoned by all tourists, and the only people left are outsiders. The documentary also has footage of Leonard Knight constructing Salvation Mountain, a guy who lives naked in the desert, and several people who say that the lake is just as good as it has always been even though it smelled like rotten eggs and the beach was made of fish bones. Despite seeing the Salton Sea pop up a few more times in the years since I watched this documentary, most notably during the movie Into the Wild, when Emile Hirsh playing Chris McCandless visits Salvation Mountain and the chapter in William T Vollmann’s  huge California book Imperial, I have not really thought about the Salton Sea much more until now.

Fast forward almost fifteen years, Michael Paul Gonzalez is on the Goulish podcast talking about his new book, Beneath the Salton Sea. He talks about a Salton Sea that is still inhabited by outsiders, but there are more of them gathered to create art and a community of people who live away from society. He talks about Slab City, a place where a makeshift society has formed on an old military base, and about how outsider art has taken over everything around the Salton Sea. He sets his new novel in this area, and as soon as he starts talking about it, I am drawn back into the mystique of the area. It is also a perfect place to set a horror story.

The novella is split into three parts, each one happening years apart, but all of them involving the same characters. The first section is from 2008, when Dee and her wife Sharon go to the Salton Sea to explore. They are told that there is a crack in the sky above the Salton Sea. When they go to the old Yacht Club, weird things happen and they barely make it out alive. The second and third parts are family members of these two going to the Salton Sea to find out what happened to them. All three of the sections turn into confusion and chaos, and there is a real disconnect between reality and the things the characters are experiencing. 

This could have really turned out to be a poorly told story, but Michael Paul Gonzalez does a great job leading us through the confusion that his characters are experiencing. He uses technology as a bridge between the dimensions. The writing must be strong and very clear in several sections, and this is what makes his writing feel masterful. He expresses huge ideas and some scenes make no sense whatsoever, but it also allows you to feel the confusion that the characters are feeling. The strength of the writing is the only thing that could pull off this story, and many writers can not do it as well as Michael Paul Gonzalez. 

When I was reading this book, I kept thinking that there was a reason why so many people are drawn to the Salton Sea. This draw is in the location itself. The characters are drawn there because they are looking for someone or something they have lost, but this happens to people in real life as well. The Salton Sea seems to attract people, and I think that this is a good way to explain why so many people choose to live in a dead and decaying area. There is something that the sea holds that they have lost. 

This book can be a challenge to some people because it is deliberately confusing and chaotic. There are gaps in time and dimension and logic, but these are things that make the book compelling. I hope that many people stick through it and read it because it will also make you fall in love with the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea demands it.

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