Dead Silence Is a Lively Horror Debut

Scene from Event Horizon (1997).

In the prime of the pandemic, two multimillionaires battle it out to see who could fling themselves into space first. People claim this is the beginning of luxury tourism so rich people won’t run out of things to buy. Many also criticize it as completely out of touch with the reality of many people’s lives. Some find it inspiring and groundbreaking to see such a hodgepodge of people flying into the unknown. While this type of travel won’t be likely anytime soon, S. A. Barnes (who also writes YA romance under the name, Stacey Kade) projects us far into a world of established space journeying, hard work, and posh, glamorous dead people. 

Claire Kovalik has not had an easy life. She had a traumatic experience as a young child and she can see ghosts. It’s not made clear if she can see ghosts as a symptom of her traumatic experience or if this is something she has always been able to do. She loves the stillness of space, is excellent at her job, and believes in her team.

Claire is the captain of a motley space crew on their way home from their last job repairing the space network systems. The crew picks up a distress signal from a famous luxury space liner, the Aurora, which disappeared 20 years ago. While they hesitate to take on another job, salvaging the Aurora would set them up for life (there are rumors that the faucets are made of solid gold) and would also reunite many families with the remains of their rich dead relatives. It’s a risk, but if they can pull it off, it would be an all-around win.

When the crew docks inside of the Aurora, they find that something is very off on this gorgeous piece of spacecraft. The first thing they notice is the creative and horrific deaths of the passengers, followed by barricaded doors and bloody writing on the wall. These passengers were trying to get away from something, but there is no sign of an intruder, or at least, not one that they can see.

A woman in profile looks into the distance out of a round astronaut's helmet.
Sigourney Weaver in a scene from Alien (1979).

The tension ratchets up as Claire and one of her crew move through the ship trying to find the ship’s black box (a protected recording device found on aircraft to record what happens during a loss of electricity). The story becomes unsettling as the crew decides that they may be able to pilot the entire ship to a base closer to Earth so that their parent company can retrieve it with more resources.

Dead Silence works in that it has a strong, complicated female lead and a steady building of tension. The early scenes that depict Claire and her crew member as they try to locate the black box on the Aurora without gravity were particularly suspenseful because missing a handhold could have them eternally spinning out of space. 

The plotting and structure of this story are what I found most impressive. You can tell that the author is having fun and is in control of her craft. There is a shift halfway through that I appreciated because it felt quite cinematic. Barnes uses a Titanic-like ship being excavated by a working-class crew to explore differences of social class and the useless value of, say solid gold facets in space. One of the only reasons they decide to take the risk is because of the possibility that the artifacts from the ship will set them for life. Unlike the actual Titanic, whose wreckage will most likely be completely gone in 20 years, everything is preserved in a museum of ostentatiousness. 

Barnes has said this book was inspired by her interest in the Titanic. This is particularly obvious in a scene where Claire and her crew try to remove two angel statues from the Aurora’s Grand Staircase. This detail has to be an allusion to the cherub at the foot of the Titanic’s iconic staircase, which was located in the upper-class section of the ship. This staircase also plays a central role in the 1997 James Cameron film of the same name. These details are what made me want to walk around longer inside this book and wish for a film to feature these details of the ship. 

While there are a lot of things that work here, I found some of the characterizations a bit stereotypical. There wasn’t anyone else on the ship as interesting as the main character, Claire. Much of the conflict between ship members feels like heavily treaded territory and a bit stilted. I also found that sometimes Barnes’ ambition throws a lot of things at the reader, and that means that not all of them land as well as they could. At times, the romance felt unnecessary and might have worked better as friendship. The switching of perspectives from present to past in the first half of the book made the present perspective (while necessary to the plot) much less interesting than the ship excavation. 

The cover of the book Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes
Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes, 2022.

In the entire scope of the book, these issues are minor. The pacing is quick and the atmosphere creepy. It will appeal to fans of space horror and films like Event Horizon, Alien, and The Shining. S. A. Barnes is a high school librarian and YA romance author whose horror debut, Dead Silence, is not quietly entering the scene. While some authors have a hard time transitioning into the horror genre, S. A. Barnes makes it look easy. One of the most anticipated horror releases this January, this sci-fi, psychological, paranormal, horror genre blender takes place in a future where space travel is for the rich and the resourceful.  

Dead Silence will be available from Tor Nightfire February 8. You can read the first two chapters at Tor Nightfire’s website.

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Written by Chrissie D.

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