Book Review: “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes

There comes a moment in every work of fiction, sometimes non-fiction as well, that wears the label “the moment of truth.” It’s the moment when the heroes find out what their struggle is for or against, and what the reality around them has been from the outset. In works that involve the supernatural, the moment can go two ways – either it leans hard into the supernatural, or provides a grounded explanation for the circumstances.

One of the best examples of the first type that I’ve ever seen was in the film 1408, based on a short story by Stephen King. The film involves a paranormal investigator, who specializes in debunking ghost stories, coming face-to-face with the real thing in a New York hotel room. Prior to setting foot in the room, he confesses to the manager that he doesn’t believe a word of what he’s heard. The manager, a restrained Samuel L. Jackson, calmly and rationally explains the history of the room, all while trying to convince the investigator to choose another room, literally any other room. When the investigator asks why room 1408 is the way it is, the manager calmly looks at him before saying, “It’s an evil fucking room.”

Boom. Done. In just five short words, the film gives itself license to do whatever it wants in order to torture the protagonist in whatever ways it wants. Simple, taut, yet highly effective.

The other side of the coin is the more grounded answer, stories I tend to label as ones with a “Scooby-Doo” ending.

I wish I could say the excellent new book “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes falls into the first category, but by the end it falls into the latter. It’s a shame because there’s enough genuine tension and scares to justify a more outlandish explanation had Barnes opted to go that route. Instead, it outright pilfers the MacGuffin from a particular Batman film. If she had gone straight for a more supernatural cause of the novel’s events, I feel (and this is me personally, your mileage may vary) that she’d have stuck the landing more decisively.

That being said, the real question is, did I like the book? I absolutely did. It’s a fast read – characters are introduced and quickly sketched in without each one hamstringing the overall pace by explaining their histories with lengthy expository sequences – the circumstances are believable given the context, the setup is fantastic, and nothing is outlandish, a feature that gives weight to the horrors the characters discover.

The story kicks off as a maintenance & repair tug on the edge of known space works to complete their rotation repairing space buoys. The call has been cycling for a long while prior to reaching the crew, so they figure why not check it out? The crew are all short timers, blue collar in the extreme, and lead by a woman-with-a-past named Claire. Each has their own reasons for being on the fringe of known space, and each brings a unique skillset, and personal baggage, to the job. They trust one another and like each other with a minimal amount of tension beyond the ship’s cramped constraints. But they remain unerringly human and if the chance to strike it rich were to come up, there wouldn’t be much in the way of hesitation to jettison norms.

Such an opportunity knocks on their door when they discover a cycling beacon far outside of known space. Claire and company learn that the signal belongs to a luxury space liner called the Aurora, the futuristic equivalent of the Titanic, which vanished almost two decades previous. The salvage from such a claim would be enough to set each of them up for life several times over. The question of “should we or shouldn’t we” is posed to the crew, but it’s nothing more than a formality and to Barnes’ credit, she conveys that amongst the characters. 

The crew makes for the Aurora expecting a ghost ship, but what they find is far worse than what they planned for. To say more would be to spoil the fun of the encounter. Barnes smartly utilizes her knowledge of the space to make the environments range from massive to claustrophobic, and the dynamics of how the cast works within those environments is excellent. The discovery kicks off the central mystery of the book – what happened to the Aurora? The characters on the salvage ship, and a few back on Earth, trip over themselves in their eagerness to learn the details of why it disappeared.

But the reasons why it disappeared rapidly give way to questions of what happened to the crew and passengers, and that’s when things get dicey.

Once the players set their destiny in motion, all that’s left is the dying and when the action kicks off, Barnes knows how to make it hurt. The character’s reactions to what they find on the ship are human and believable. While some are more worried than others, there’s never a moment of devolving into the cliche of a 1980’s horror movie where one character screams and runs off and immediately dies, or the crew agrees to individually split up to make it easier for the monster to get them.

They’re a team – they’ve worked together for almost two years by that point in cramped conditions out in the dead end of space. If they do anything but work together, they will die horribly. That teamwork up to the point where the book starts provides a solid basis for their responses to the struggles on the Aurora. The consistency of character makes a solid read into an excellent read.

One possible hiccup depends on the reader. It’s how there are two timelines for about two-thirds of the story. The first is Claire recollecting the events that happened back on the Aurora to the ship’s company owners, and the second timeline follows her team when they first discovered it. These two reconcile towards the end before the big finish, but it tends to slam on the brakes right as things begin to get moving.

Barnes weaves a few themes into the work involving corporate greed (naturally) along with the impossible nature of hiding from one’s past. The past is always with us in one form or another, and watching Claire’s struggle with this makes it easy to sympathize with her. Her schoolgirl swooning over fellow crewmate and ship doctor Kane is bit much, but there’s enough drama elsewhere that it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

Again, I wish the ending had damned the torpedoes and gone full supernatural, but other than that “Dead Silence” comes highly recommended. It’s a fast and fun read with interesting characters, a strong lead, and genuinely scary circumstances on a ghost ship in deep space. This is my kind of story, and I think you’ll dig it too. 

Grade: B+

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