I’ve remarked on how my movie habits tend to lean towards horror with a heavy helping of science fiction, and I can start to feel my reading habit slide in that direction too. Horror is the proverbial jam to the peanut butter that is science fiction. That is to say, yeah, I read another spooky space book, and while it isn’t a tour de force, Dead Silence, by S.A. Barnes, is a hell of a good time that delivers on the tropes that misses some horror by not expanding on them too much.
Claire Kovalik is about to be out of a job. Her way of life is about to be made obsolete as she and her crew deliver a maintenance bot to one of the last communications arrays at the edge of the solar system. Gone is her ability to isolate herself from the rest of humanity and exist on the outskirts. That is until they receive a distress call from the Aurora, a luxury space cruise liner that went missing over twenty years ago. Denied a loan to start her own interstellar shipping company, Claire and her crew figure their best shot at living a little better is to bring home the Aurora. The reason for its disappearance is a total mystery, but the drudgery of having a planetbound life scares Claire even more. However, hallucinations from Claire’s past start to haunt her mind in ways they haven’t before as they approach the ship. What caused the Aurora to leave the solar system? And did anyone or anything survive the decades of isolation?
Dead Silence is an incredibly fun, and at times, creepy ghost ship in space story. Barnes absolutely nails it with a campy premise perforated by moments of fear. The crew’s first entry into the ship is quiet and crawls under the reader’s skin. The rolling set of problems the crew encountered as they tried to bring the cruise liner home had me cackling with delight more often than it sent shivers down my spine. But there were times I felt a growing sense of unease that couldn’t be shaken until the next campy trope was revealed. Barnes’ writing allowed me to have fun while also building the crew’s growing desperation. The need to constantly justify doing something a little more stupid, a little more dangerous drives the narrative, keeping things exciting without setting off the “get out of there” alarm bells too often.
I think one place where the formula felt a little too thick was in the characterization. Claire worked well as the protagonist through the narrow view by which the reader experiences the story. She’s questionable and believable in equal measure giving everything a “something’s fucky” vibe. I do wish there was a little more characterization making me feel haunted by her.
However, the rest of the crew are maxed out tropes, which made their search and the scares fun, but I never felt particularly tied to them. There were some you felt bad for, and some you couldn’t wait to see what trouble they’d end up in. It’s a good balance if you’re looking for fun, but it didn’t really ratchet up the tension in the long run. The two detectives in the b-plot were fine enough, and arguably better drawn, but they also didn’t add much. Instead of casting doubt on Claire’s story, I often felt that they made me want to defend her. Which made the horror more believable in some ways, but also amplified the need to solve the mystery as the sole origin of the horror, which feels counterintuitive.
Don’t get me wrong, Barnes knows how to unravel the mystery while building an atmosphere of dread. But the more the mystery is revealed, the more the horror begins to feel diminished. In theory, I would expect the terror is supposed to be weighted differently, centered on the cause instead of the effect. Instead, in Dead Silence, it felt like the truth was setting me free of the nightmare. While the reveal is still awful, it’s sort of cut short by some of the other narrative and character moments that it occurs in. It was too much of a tonal shift for me to really buy in and left a sour taste in my mouth.
Dead Silence is a science fiction horror that has fun with its premise while delivering some good atmosphere and the occasional scare. It’s not pushing the boundaries in any way, and that’s okay. It was the perfect read when I picked it up, allowing me to have fun without needing to pick it apart while I was reading it. But after a few weeks of thought that’s all it remained. It’s spooky in the right ways, so grab some popcorn, a cup of tea, and snuggle in for a fun ride.
Rating: Dead Silence 6.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.