Becoming jaded is a hazard for book reviewers. Blurbs and publicists’ plot distillations become a montage of repetition. So, when I saw that Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes was being touted as a brilliant mash-up of Titanic; Alien; The Shining; and Event Horizon, the corners of my mouth turned up in an instinctive jaundiced smile. The words on the novel’s cover reinforced the scoffing sentiment: “A Ghost Ship. A Salvage Crew. Unspeakable Horrors.” Simplistic yet very calculated in terms of enticement. I lazily opened the book, prepared to have my cynicism validated. And soon came an unexpected rush. Author Barnes more than defied my (albeit low) expectations by delivering an unexpectedly smashing science fiction-horror hybrid.
The year is 2149. First-person narrator Claire Kovalik is being deposed at a corporate rehabilitation center on earth. Team Leader Kovalik is being queried about events that occurred when she and her purportedly now dead crew members investigated an ultra-luxury space-liner that mysteriously vanished twenty years earlier. Before responding to the mindboggling distress signal from the famed ship Aurora, Claire was at emotional crossroads. Her space assignment was coming to an end, and she would be relegated to a desk job at Verux Corporation; an influential conglomerate that has had a profound impact over her life since childhood. Claire had contemplated cutting herself free from her ship and its mates and dying among the stars when it seemed that she would soon be rendered superfluous. Her emotional instability stems from survivor’s guilt. She still feels responsible for a catastrophe that occurred in her youth which resulted in many horrific casualties. And parenthetically, Claire Kovalik sees dead people.
Dead people are found in abundance on the ghost ship Aurora, many of whom reenact their violent demises on an infinite loop. Hallucinations? Apparitions? Both? Carnage endured and perpetuated is vividly described. Claire muses at one point during her interrogation, “I don’t know how to tell them so they’ll believe me, but it only gets worse from here.” Indeed, it’s hard to rationally regard her as a reliable narrator. Claire’s narration is broken up into headings titled “Now,” which encompasses the period and atmosphere of her debriefing and “Then,” her recounting of how things went down in real-time. There is much conjecture about the cause leading up to the gory lethal mayhem aboard the Aurora, as well as speculation about the circumstances surrounding the fate of Claire’s crew.
Claire Kovalik’s state of mind is at the core of the novel. Her relationships have suffered due to her childhood trauma, and her commitment to Verux is based on feeling beholden to it, which is more of a burden rather than genuine gratitude. The corporation’s cool solicitude does not suffice in terms of emotional fulfillment. As remote and damaged as she is, Claire does come to terms with the adage that no one is an island. And learns to discern when a sense of commitment comes from the heart rather than mere obligation.
In Dead Silence, genres are extremely well merged. There’s a seamless blending of science fiction and horror elements, as well as an infusing of basic adventure and suspense fundamentals. Author Barnes warded off my looming reviewer skepticism by proving that a fine story and engaging characters can triumph over wary assumptions.