The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

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

-Alex

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Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole