I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.
Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.
The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.
The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.
To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.
I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.
The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.
Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10