I don’t usually branch out into horror, but Alien has proved that I can enjoy a good haunted house in space, and when Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes got picked up as part of r/Fantasy’s New Voices Book Club, the description sounded interesting enough to make it worth a try.
Dead Silence opens with the sole survivor of the disastrous discovery of a long-lost luxury cruise spaceship telling her story to skeptical bosses demanding to know what really happened to her lost team members. The first half of the story consists mostly of flashbacks to the original incident–interspersed periodically with snippets of the lead’s present-day interrogation–before shifting more and more in the second half to the present time and the decisions on how to handle the aftermath.
Even without much background in horror tropes, it wasn’t especially hard to see where the story was going. The frame story explicitly established that the lead would survive the initial encounter and heavily hinted that her employers were seeking to establish contact with the lost luxury ship, despite her objections. It wasn’t surprising to see Alien name-checked in the blurb, and Dead Silence felt almost like Alien and Aliens put together, with a haunted house in space followed by an unnecessary and ill-advised return to the place that birthed the horrors. Throw in a greedy corporation and precious few red herrings, and the mysteries were limited only to the details—the general story arc was clear.
But a book can go a long way on execution alone, and Barnes constructed a terrifically haunting atmosphere that carried much of the story. The supporting cast was flat, with a crew populated by one-trait actors, but they didn’t need depth to establish the creeping dread that accompanied each new horror uncovered or unexplained sound in the night. And even if the antagonist’s ultimate unmasking came as no shock, the fight for survival was enough to keep eyes glued to the page for the duration.
Dead Silence could certainly be accused of being a paint-by-numbers sci-fi/horror tale, with a shallow cast and a well-worn plot. But it makes up so much ground in the telling to be well worth the read for anyone looking for a creepy, atmospheric sci-fi tale. The unfeeling corporate masters provide enough material to explore themes of abuses and those hurt by them, and the central story itself is riveting, even if you know the end.
Recommended if you like: atmospheric sci-fi horror.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for 2022 Release, Standalone, Mental Health, and Book Club. It’s also Set in Space by an Author Using Initials and has No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.