Gabino Iglesias reviews Dead Silence by SA Barnes – Locus Online
dead silenceSA Barnes (Tor Nightfire 978-1250819994, $27.99, 352pp, hc) February 2022.
S. A. Barnes dead silence is a chilling and incredibly atmospheric horror novel that bridges the gap between gothic horror and extreme horror while simultaneously exploring the role that past trauma and PTSD can play when a sufferer is exposed to a new trauma.
Claire Kovalik is about to retire and has no idea what her future holds. For now, however, she’s still the boss of a beacon repair crew floating in space doing work she already deems unnecessary, given recent advances in technology. With random suicidal thoughts and creeping depression every time she thinks about being back on Earth and unemployed, Claire is happy to go explore a bizarre distress signal.
The signal leads them to an abandoned ship. However, this is no ordinary ship: they find the Dawn, a renowned luxury liner that was teeming with the wealthy, royalty, actors, famous athletes and other celebrities when it vanished into thin air two decades ago on its first visit to the system solar. Claire knows that saving the Dawn, who rose to legendary status thanks to her mysterious disappearance, would earn her and her crew enough money to pursue whatever they want once they return to Earth, so they risk it all and board the ship to bring him home. Unfortunately, something is very wrong with the Dawn. The ship is full of floaters, most of them showing signs of extreme violence. There are messages written in blood in the walls of the vessel. Communications from the crew of the Dawn tried to send in the end are broken and hint at madness. Soon these things take a back seat as the crew hears things they weren’t meant to hear and begin to experience powerful hallucinations as they work to unravel the mystery. Meanwhile, Claire struggles to keep her sanity as her past as a survivor of another terrible space disaster in which her mother died and she followed the ghost of her best friend comes back with a vengeance and threatens to neutralize it.
dead silence is a superb hybrid horror novel that brings together science fiction, extreme psychological horror with a healthy dose of gore, and elements of gothic fiction like the Dawn quickly transforms into something resembling an abandoned haunted mansion full of mysteries and wandering ghosts. The result is striking and makes the novel easy to read despite its length.
Barnes does a lot in this story. The first is to make Claire’s mental state one of the story’s anchor points. There’s a lot going on, but the one that worries us the most in the first half of the novel is Claire’s psyche. She saw many people die as a child, including her mother, and spent time alone not knowing if she would be saved or die there as well. The resulting PTSD is a constant presence in his life and contributes greatly to his nerves and insecurities, both of which are exacerbated by the thought of losing his job and being stuck on Earth after that last gig, which she hates and fears in equal measure. As the visions increase in both frequency and intensity, she becomes so worried about her mental state that she decides to tell the crew doctor about it so she can be removed from her position of power to protect others:
For the safety of my crew, I must tell Kane what happened. Let him decide what to do. If I keep it to myself and really lose my shit, they might not realize it fast enough to run away. Someone has to be on the lookout for aberrant behavior. Rather a more aberrant behavior.
The second thing Barnes does really well is create atmosphere. Things are tense from the start, but as the crew discovers bodies under the beds, horribly mutilated people, messages on the walls and fragments of messages on the Dawncommunication system, this tension increases tenfold and fear makes its appearance, then remains for the duration of the novel. Knowing about some of the things that happened on the ship is horrible, but the things that we don’t know and the things that the fragments the crew finds allude to are worse, and those are the things that really create a scary atmosphere and immersive.
There is pure darkness and chaos at the heart of dead silence. It’s a novel about space travel, of course, but it’s also about other things: ”Murder, suicide, confusion and chaos without explanation or reason.” However, there is also a dash of humor and a budding romance, both of which work to balance the constant sense of dread and impending doom as well as the presence of gory ghosts, including some from each crew member’s past.
Any notice of dead silence would be remiss not to mention the similarities between this one and the great space horror movie Event horizon: a found ship, a crew whose psyche is slowly collapsing under the pressure of an evil presence, and very personal nightmares with emotional baggage that haunts the characters. Although these similarities are there, and they are obvious from the outset, dead silence is its own unique monster full of great writing and well-developed characters. In other words, it’s a great, immersive, atmospheric space horror that shows Barnes is a talented storyteller and proves that, despite rumors to the contrary, horror belongs in space.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, teacher and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and coyote songs and the editor of On both sides. Her work has been nominated for the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. Her short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and her non-fiction has appeared in the New York Timesthe Los Angeles Timesand CrimeReads. Her work has been published in five languages, optional for the cinema and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl and Meg Gardiner. His critics appear regularly in places like NPR, Weekly editorsthe San Francisco Chronicle, criminal element, Mystery Tribune, Flight. 1Brooklynthe Book review in Los Angeles, and other print and online sites. He has served as a jury member for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has been a judge for the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing in the online MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and others like it in the January 2022 issue of Location.
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