John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An "ancient evil" has awoken in the Bay Area and is making life hell for sewage workers, according to a new novel by a real-life sewage professional.
Are you ready to read the world's finest plot summary – OK, maybe only plot summary – for a horror story set in a wastewater-treatment plant? Brace yourselves:
Scott's determined to make it through a record-shattering storm for his first day at the wastewater plant. What he thinks his new career will entail and what he finds are polar opposites – an outdated plant full of half-broke equipment and a motley crew of plant operators who can barely tolerate one another.
As personal politics explode during the worst storm in centuries, an ancient evil awakens. It's hungry. It's intelligent. And it's focused on the wastewater plant.
These golden words were forged in the fevered mind of Dodge Winston, a wastewater-plant operator in the San Francisco Bay Area who recently self-published a sci-fi thriller called The Wastewater Plant – tagline, “Where no one cares when you scream.” If you've never run into a Dodge Winston on the street, that's because it's a nom de plume. The author would prefer his coworkers not get too curious about how he developed his characters (again, "who can barely tolerate one another").
"There are all kinds of shows about the police or firefighters or healthcare professionals, and not a lot for people who work at wastewater plants," he says. "I think that's lacking because it's a fairly unknown industry and there's not a lot of PR about it. When people think about wastewater, they think about flushing the toilet, basically urine and poo or whatever."
But they should be thinking about where the nasty stuff winds up post-floosh, or even better, what would happen if it didn't go anywhere at all. "If we shut down the wastewater-treatment plant, we'd have issues with cholera and typhoid and things like that; people would be getting sick. If you want to define civilization, sanitation is definitely one of the things [involved in it]."
To convey to readers the terror of his fictional wastewater-treatment plant, Winston drew from the actual terror of wandering at night through the lonely halls of the facility where he's worked for a decade. He calls it the "ideal location" for a horror novel.
"When I work the graveyard shift it can get eerie," he says. "It's real quiet out there with the water dripping and chains swinging around and dark places that are underground and no one can hear you.... And if you have a creative imagination and like to write, it doesn't help," with the freaky heebie-jeebies, says Winston.
Here are photos that Winston shared of the spooky industrial architecture that influenced the novel, beginning with these fog-shrouded aeration tanks:
Tremble before this sinisterly simmering secondary clarifier:
This is where a body is found:
And this is what Winston calls the "BATHROOM OF DEATH" (caps are mine to give the necessary effect):
The abomination stalking Winston's flow monitors and lab geeks, who work on an island in San Pablo Bay, is a cross between the monsters from Alien and The Thing. "Horrific, you just don't want to deal with something like this," he says. "It's just bad news." A torrential downpour floods the marsh the dreadful entity has claimed for a hibernation chamber, and it "comes up and takes a vagrant out first." (In the horror/thriller genres, vagrants never can catch a break.) Then it makes a beeline for the wastewater plant, where it permanently cancels the O/T of doomed employees.
Winston's grisly maimings were inspired by accidents that could happen at a real plant, albeit one that's terribly mismanaged, like built-up pockets of methane exploding and vats of flesh-eating nitric acid toppling over. He won't say how or even if the monster dies, but I'm guessing the workers drive it away by pelting it with sludge cakes. To find out yourself, purchase the $10.59 softcover edition at Barnes & Noble or the $3.99 Kindle ebook on Amazon, where it appears first in a search of "wastewater plant" above Operation of Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants: Manual of Practice 11 and Handbook of Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Operations, Second Edition.
Although this is the fourth novel Winston has penned since he "fell into" wastewater in junior college, it is the first that deals with his day job. (He's coming off of a sci-fi trilogy about a mentally scarred military vet called Drake Eldorado. Take that, "Dodge Winston"!) But he will stick with the theme of The Wastewater Plant for his next effort, a collection of horror stories about working folks like backhoe operators, engineers and traffic-signal technicians.
His goal is to build up a core readership in the public-works sector and then, if his strange brew of municipal jobs and malignant supernatural forces proves addictive, maybe snag a movie deal.
"If you want to get something [made in Hollywood], you need drama, excitement, blood and guts," he says. "If you have a book about eating doughnuts or having a good day at the office, it's kind of boring."
Top image: The cover of "The Wastewater Plant," illustrated by Dawné Dominique