I came to Caitlin Starling’s THE LUMINOUS DEAD via any number of reviews and recaps promising me deep, vicious horror underground, and all of them were right. What I didn’t get prepared for was exactly how somatic the experience was, how clearly I felt an echo of the protagonist’s physical experience as she delves deeper and deeper into the unnamed cave that has eaten so many people already.
I’m into the horrors of the deep. Fans of Internet mythologia will be familiar with the tale of Ted the Caver, which up until the very end has the validating ring of possibility; fans of oh god this really happened underground horror will be able to tell the story of Floyd Collins’s bad death in a crevice underneath Kentucky. There’s instance after instance of humans being caught or lost in the deep passages under the earth, and storytellers have always capitalized on this profound horror. Look at Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault for the clearest and most chilling distillation of this particular fear.
Starling doesn’t rest on this particular coasting tide of horror. What sets her caving protagonist aside is the fact that she — Gyre Price — is cocooned inside a self-contained suit which renders her capable of exploring the underground passages for an indefinite period, powered by batteries, recycling her own waste and relying on nutrition via external cartridges of nutrient paste injected into her gut via an indwelling catheter port. The only connection Gyre has to the world outside the dark maze of the cave is her handler Em, a woman with her own agenda and purpose whose reasons for sending Gyre down into the dark become more and more horrific as the narrative proceeds.
THE LUMINOUS DEAD is a story about desperation, about depersonalization and about what it means to trust a single voice in the dark, when that voice has the capability of shutting down your life support at their solitary whim. It’s about trying to learn to believe someone after they have violated that trust, and the vast, helpless mental shock of learning that they might possibly care for you after all. About the awful drowning terror of being alone in the dark, of perhaps not being alone in that dark when one ought to be; about trying to make sense of someone else’s sins and how they can be rectified, while all around you the living rock shakes and trembles with the passage of a much vaster and more terrifying fear.
The pacing of the novel is sometimes suspect, and the nature of the supernatural elements at the conclusion is not as clear as I would have liked; but the full force of this book is in the way it makes you feel the simple, vicious horror of Gyre’s situation and her desperate and self-destructive efforts to survive.
I bought the novel on ibooks and binged it in one reading because I simply could not stop reading; I intend to go back and read it again, slower, with more breathing space, but I can unequivocally recommend this to anyone who’s into sci-fi horror and not horrendously squicked by descriptions of claustrophobic subterranean fear. Looking forward to what Starling’s up to next.