“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 When Lourdes, her comms person, picks up a faint distress call on an outdated frequency, Claire jumps at the chance to delay the inevitable while doing “the right thing.”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.
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.