Erica’s Pick of the Week: Dead Silence

While it is a truth universally acknowledged that I am a scaredy cat, I occasionally read books MOST people would call horror, and others (me) would call Exceedingly Creepy, just for a change of pace. It’s February, after all, and if ever there was a time to mix things up, it’s now, when the fresh start of New Year’s is over and your toes are always cold and spring feels especially far away. Sometimes, the cure for February is something radically different. So, whether you are a horror fan looking for a new and terrifying reason not to sleep, or just in the mood for something chilling and unexpected, S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence more than fits the bill. Pitched as Titanic meets the Shining (in space), it’s a taut, spine-tingling story with a stratospheric body count, an unforgettable setting, and a complex and appealing heroine. 

Claire Kovalik and her crew are basically cable guys in space. They work on the far-flung edges of the galaxy, repairing communication beacons – and they’re about to be replaced by robots. In an effort to postpone the inevitable, they respond to an emergency beacon and happen upon the Aurora, a luxury space cruise line which vanished on its maiden voyage decades ago. It soon becomes clear that there’s not a living soul on board the Aurora – and that this near-mythic vessel represents the salvage find of a lifetime. Intent on claiming the ship for themselves, Claire and her crew discover that while they’re the only LIVING souls on the ship, they aren’t alone. Something caused the passengers of the Aurora to lose their minds and turn on each other in hideously violent fashion – and now Claire and her crew are seeing and hearing things that couldn’t possibly be there. And if Claire wants to save her team and make it home, she’ll have to confront the ghosts of her past and present.

Setting Dead Silence in space allows Barnes to take the familiar elements of horror and ratchet them up to an eleven. Sure, The Aurora is claustrophobic and dangerous and deeply creepy, but it’s also infinitely safer than leaving the ship, which would strand you in deep space. There’s no communication with the outside world, resources are scarce, and there are just so many different ways to die, from a ship malfunction to the physics of antigravity to whatever terrible force has taken over the Aurora. It’s a setting that is equally imaginative and plausible, which makes it all the scarier.

Told in two timelines, the action moves back and forth between Claire’s discovery of the Aurora and her interrogation in a mental institution some months later. Whatever happened on the ship was so traumatizing that she simply can’t remember — but her employer needs to know, especially when it becomes clear that whatever took over the Aurora may still be a threat. It’s easy to tell the two storylines apart, but a close reading of both only increases the tension and sense of dread. The mystery of the Aurora is as much a puzzler as any mystery novel, revealing just enough information at critical moments to keep you reading for “a few more pages” until the story’s end. 

In Claire, Barnes has created a compelling, sympathetic heroine — she’s strong without being a superhero, savvy and snarky — and ultimately, the only one capable of saving her team, even if she doesn’t trust herself to do it. She’s a character with a backstory almost as terrible as the Aurora’s, and it has left her with long-lasting scars and tenuous grip on reality. Watching Claire uncover the truth is both satisfying and nerve-wracking, especially because it’s not clear that the truth will, in fact, set her free.

If you’re a horror fan, Dead Silence has more than enough scares and suspense to keep you turning the pages. But even if you, like me, tend to be a little bit of a scaredy cat, it’s worth checking out — the vividly imagined setting, the expert pacing, and most of all, the complex and compelling heroine make for a gripping read. 

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