Gabino Iglesias Reviews Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes

Dead Silence, S.A. Barnes (Tor Night­fire 978-1250819994, $27.99, 352pp, hc) Febru­ary 2022.

S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence is a creepy 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 someone who suffers from them is exposed to fresh trauma.

Claire Kovalik is about to be forcefully retired and has no idea what her future holds. For now, however, she is still the boss of a beacon repair crew floating in space and doing work she feels is already useless, given recent technological advances. With random suicidal thoughts and depression creeping in 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 vessel: they find the Aurora, a renowned luxury space-liner that was packed with rich people, royalty, actors, famous athletes, and other assorted celebrities when it vanished into thin air two decades ago while on its on its maiden tour of the solar system. Claire knows that salvaging the Aurora, which has achieved legendary status thanks to its mysteri­ous disappearance, would bring 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 in order to bring it home. Unfortunately, something is horribly wrong with the Aurora. The ship is full of floating bodies, most of them show­ing signs of extreme violence. There are messages written in blood in the walls of the vessel. The communications the crew of the Aurora tried to send at the end are broken up and hint at madness. Soon those things take the backseat as the crew hear things they’re not supposed to hear and start having powerful hallucinations as they work to crack the mystery. Meanwhile, Claire struggles to keep a hold on her sanity as her past, as a survivor of another awful space catastrophe in which her mother died and she followed the ghost of her best friend comes back with a vengeance and threatens to incapacitate her.

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 as the Aurora quickly morphs into something akin to an abandoned haunted mansion full of mysteries and wandering ghosts. The result is gripping and makes the novel a quick read de­spite its length.

Barnes does many things right in this narrative. The first one is making Claire’s mental state one of the anchors of the story. A lot of things are going on, but the one we worry about the most for the first half of the novel is Claire’s psyche. She watched a lot of people die when she was a kid, including her mother, and spent time alone not knowing if she’d be rescued or if she’d die out there as well. The PTSD that came from that is a constant presence in her life and contributes greatly to her nerves and insecurities, both of which are exacerbated by the thought of losing her job and being stuck on Earth after this last gig, which is something she hates and fears in equal measure. As the visions increase in both frequency and intensity, she worries about her mental state so much that she decides to tell the crew’s doctor so she can be removed from her position of power to protect others:

For the safety of my crew, I need to tell Kane what happened. Let him decide what to do. If I keep it to myself and truly lose my shit, they may not realize it fast enough to save themselves. Someone needs to be on the lookout for aberrant behavior. Rather, more aberrant behavior.

The second thing Barnes does very well is build atmosphere. Things are tense from the start, but as the crew discover bodies under beds, people horri­bly mutilated, messages on the walls, and fragments of messages on the Aurora’s communications sys­tem, that tension increases tenfold and fear makes an appearance, and then stays for the duration of the novel. Knowing some of the things that happened on the ship is awful, but the things we don’t know and the things that the fragments the crew find hint at are worse, and those things are the ones that truly build a creepy, immersive atmosphere.

There is pure darkness and mayhem at the heart of Dead Silence. This is a novel about space travel, sure, but it’s also about other things: ‘‘Murder, suicide, confusion, and chaos without an explana­tion or any reason.’’ However, there is also a dash of humor and a blossoming love, both of which work to balance out the constant sense of dread and impending doom as well as the presence of bloody ghosts, including some from each crew member’s own past.

Any review of Dead Silence would be remiss not to mention the similarities between it and the great space horror film Event Horizon: a found ship, a crew whose psyches are slowly crumbling under the pressure of an evil presence, and very personal nightmares with emotional baggage coming to haunt characters. While those similarities are there, and they’re obvious from the start, Dead Silence is its own unique monster full of great writing and well-developed characters. In other words, this is 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, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the January 2022 issue of Locus.

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