Here’s the premise of The Silence by Tim Lebbon: An adolescent English girl, deaf as the result of a car accident, faces off against an exponentially growing hoard of voracious blind winged-creatures, who hone in on their victims via sound. Lebbon’s variant of the apocalyptic plague is mercifully free of zombies, but that’s not why the narrative is superior to most of its genre ilk. What elevates The Silence into the stratosphere as one of the best recent horror novels is the author’s knack for engaging – then shaking up – the reader. Lebbon isn’t a literary equivalent of Steven Spielberg; sentimentally sparing household pets. The story is highly intense and graphic in its depictions of violence, despair, and desperation.
A caving expedition in Moldova unleashes the vile creatures, who are dubbed “vesps” by the media. Once released from the environment of the cave, the housecat-size vesps go on a feeding and reproducing frenzy. They lay their eggs in the mutilated corpses of their prey. The progeny, activated by noises in the vicinity, take flight soon after hatching. Like the elders, the young thrive on flesh. There are no safe boundaries since the beasts can fly and their numbers are huge and multiplying. A vesp viewed up close is thus described: “The teeth were incredibly sharp, reminding him of the mouth of a piranha. It had long, slender claws on its stumpy legs, and the tips of its bat-like wings were also tipped with a vicious-looking claw. A clear fluid dripped from them. Poison, perhaps. For such a small animal it was comprehensively armed.”
While the attack is of global proportions, the plot focuses on England and the tribulations of the deaf protagonist, Ally, and her family. Their adaptation to the catastrophe relies on being silent so the vesps can’t track them. They communicate largely through sign language, a skill which became a necessity when Ally lost her hearing. Since the vesps are mobilized by sound, avoiding densely populated areas is a given. Navigating through the wilderness of the countryside en route to Scotland, the family becomes an even tighter unit. The outside world, courtesy of social media and news briefs, is a distant and often unreliable source of information.
Depiction of the rapid proliferation of the assailants is mesmerizing and horrific. The entities are consummately repulsive. Ally, who is documenting the unfathomable devastation, sums up their alien attributes with abhorrence: “And what was worst about them was their unnaturalness. They simply were not meant to be. They were like a child’s drawing of a monster given life, all whimsy stripped away, only horror and ugliness left behind.”
Ally, her parents, younger brother, and maternal grandmother are extremely likeable and genuine. Their fears cannot be spoken, and sobs must be suppressed in order to stay alive. Because The Silence delves deep into the characters’ souls, their quietude speaks volumes. Tim Lebbon’s novel resonates with the sounds of silence.
The Silence is a Titan Books publication available now.