Dead Silence: In space, no one can hear you go mad

Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDead Silence by S.A. Barnes science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDead Silence by S.A. Barnes

“I have a screw loose. Somewhere.”

S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence (2022) is a creepy, atmospheric, compelling “haunted house in space” story, told by a character whose self-concept is deeply fractured by PTSD and survivor guilt. Barnes glides through various types of horror, driving up the fear and suspense with every new discovery a salvage team makes on the derelict luxury space liner they find.

Claire Kovalik is the Team Leader of a small crew of in-solar-system communication-web maintenance workers. The system is being upgraded, rendering their jobs obsolete. Everyone on the five-person crew is eager to head back to earth — except Claire, who seriously considers unclipping her tether and dying in space rather than returning planetside. When Lourdes, her comms person, picks up a faint distress call on an outdated frequency, Claire jumps at the chance to delay the inevitable while doing “the right thing.”

The crew is reluctant at first until they learn the derelict is the famous lost luxury liner Aurora, which vanished in space with a guest manifest of the richest, most privileged, most famous of earth, twenty years ago. The ship had gold faucets, an infinity pool and private chefs preparing “real” food for the Platinum-level guests. And it vanished without a trace. When Claire’s crew finds it, the thing looks creepy even from the outside. And once they’re inside, it gets worse. Someone or something killed everyone — or pushed them to kill themselves and each other, in savage, terrifying ways.

I knew I was in the hands of a masterful horror writer then the indoor putting green, seen through the Aurora’s window from Claire’s ship, looked creepy. A putting green. And that’s from the outside.

S.A. Barnes

S.A. Barnes

Once Claire and the crew enter the ship, they — and we — face gore-shock horror, jump-scares and moments of quieter, more disturbing disorientation, creating that rising sense of dread. Claire’s situation is even more precarious than the others’. This isn’t the first time she’s roamed among dead bodies in her life. As a child, Claire was the lone survivor of the Ferris Outpost colony, which succumbed to a virus. Claire distinctly remembers seeing and hearing people moving around in the colony after they were dead, most especially her mother, who gave her directions on using the communications equipment. Now, experiencing auditory, tactile and visual episodes, Claire can’t tell if this is an effect of the ship or of her deteriorating mental state, and how much she herself is a risk to her crew.

Reading the premise of the book, people may be reminded of the horror movie, Event Horizon, and there are similarities. Like that film, Dead Silence uses the tropes of any haunted house or haunted ship story. The characterizations, along with the puzzle of Claire’s history, make this story different. I also think it’s unusual for the “hauntees” to figure out that they are probably hallucinating, although in this case, that knowledge provides no armor against whatever is attacking them.

The grace with which we go from a jump-scare or full physical horror to something softer and less defined (and frightening) makes this a nail-biting pleasure. One of my favorite creepy moments comes when Claire and the crew have secured the Aurora’s bridge and some of the passenger compartments, and Claire in on the bridge. She’s sent half to crew to get some sleep. She clearly hears a stateroom door open and close, open and close again, but no one comes down the corridor. Contrast that with a full-sensory fight with a dead body that grabs Clair’s ankle as it desperately tries to pull her under the bed—and all the while it’s struggling to breathe as if it’s alive.

This is clearly science fiction horror with the emphasis on horror. While the focus in the interior of the derelict ship — and Claire’s mind — the worldbuilding is thorough and economical.

If you like ghost-ship horror and enjoy complicated characters, I’ll think you’ll enjoy Dead Silence as much as I did, and it’s my first five-star review of 2022.

Published in February 2022. Titanic meets The Shining in S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence, a SF horror novel in which a woman and her crew board a decades-lost luxury cruiser and find the wreckage of a nightmare that hasn’t yet ended. A GHOST SHIP. A SALVAGE CREW. UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS. Claire Kovalik is days away from being unemployed ― made obsolete ― when her beacon repair crew picks up a strange distress signal. With nothing to lose and no desire to return to Earth, Claire and her team decide to investigate. What they find is shocking: the Aurora, a famous luxury spaceliner that vanished on its maiden tour of the solar system more than twenty years ago. A salvage claim like this could set Claire and her crew up for life. But a quick search of the ship reveals something isn’t right. Whispers in the dark. Flickers of movement. Messages scrawled in blood. Claire must fight to hold on to her sanity and find out what really happened on the Aurora before she and her crew meet the same ghastly fate.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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2 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    While one explanation of the hallucinations Claire has is that she’s suffering from schizophrenia or something similar, triggered by her PTSD, there’s enough ambiguity that the novel never really comes down clearly either for or against that. According to Claire’s account, she sees Reed Darrow’s uncle (or other older relative) and Diaz’s former squad-mate even though she’s never met either of them previously, and in enough detail that the two living people recognize who she’s describing and react with anger. But if you take the position that she’s an unreliable narrator, she could be misinterpreting those incidents and Diaz’s and Darrow’s reactions as part of her mental illness. The story doesn’t force one conclusion or the other.

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