It’s a weirdly lucky season for me, because in less than a month, I’ve had the chance to go to two authors talks and signings! This one was extra special, since it’s close to my second home and to my heart. And because it’s for a book I might not normally read, since I’m a big scaredy cat who gets nervous about anything horror adjacent.
But I will be brave, because Caitlin Starling’s talk about The Luminous Dead has convinced me! Even if it means I have to read her book during the day!
And hey, while I’m at it, let me convince you that you should read it too… 👀
For the uninitiated, here’s a real quick run-down of Starling’s debut, which is an adult sci-fi/horror book (featuring, in her words “angsty traumatized lesbians in space”/”spooky cave lesbians” in case that sells you on this just a little more):
A thrilling, atmospheric debut with the intensive drive of The Martian and Gravity and the creeping dread of Annihilation, in which a caver on a foreign planet finds herself on a terrifying psychological and emotional journey for survival.
When Gyre Price lied her way into this expedition, she thought she’d be mapping mineral deposits, and that her biggest problems would be cave collapses and gear malfunctions. She also thought that the fat paycheck—enough to get her off-planet and on the trail of her mother—meant she’d get a skilled surface team, monitoring her suit and environment, keeping her safe. Keeping her sane.
Instead, she got Em.
Em sees nothing wrong with controlling Gyre’s body with drugs or withholding critical information to “ensure the smooth operation” of her expedition. Em knows all about Gyre’s falsified credentials, and has no qualms using them as a leash—and a lash. And Em has secrets, too . . .
As Gyre descends, little inconsistencies—missing supplies, unexpected changes in the route, and, worst of all, shifts in Em’s motivations—drive her out of her depths. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds her sense of control giving way to paranoia and anger. On her own in this mysterious, deadly place, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, Gyre must overcome more than just the dangerous terrain and the Tunneler which calls underground its home if she wants to make it out alive—she must confront the ghosts in her own head.
But how come she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed?
Basically, this thing is supposed to be creepy as all hell and I’m both excited and terrified. (Another disclaimer? I’m swamped in senior thesis work, and haven’t read this yet since it’s a DAYTIME ONLY BOOK and I don’t have daylight hours for it yet. That said, an extremely good friend has extremely good things to say, and I trust her word. And what I heard from Caitlin last week. Which I’ll get to now.)
At the talk, Caitlin gave a quick reading part of an early chapter that gave a sense of the claustrophobic world she’s created, and the eerie description by negation that colors so much of the work and gives it its haunting flavor. She also discussed what it was like to create a book where there is only a single setting, and only two characters. In The Luminous Dead, there is only Gyre Price, Em, and the cave, and hell if that isn’t a gamble to take.
On one hand, she said she really enjoyed it! Not getting into a sprawling, expansive world meant she was allowed to keep her focus tight, and that she could tease out all the beats that make this book fall into horror the way it does. On the other hand, she admitted it’s a little daunting to have only two characters, because all the expectation of earning the reader’s sympathy is on those two characters alone, and no one else. And that’s even harder when you have characters making decisions that don’t garner very much sympathy. It sounds like she’s toed a very delicate balance in making her characters interesting, human, and sometimes abhorrent, which excites me a lot. I love complex characters, after all!
Another thing she talked about, answering my question about what was most challenging and yet rewarding about pulling The Luminous Dead together, was that she had to totally restructure the book, cutting about half of what she once had and reworking from that. She ended up eliminating a feature she was attached to (tbh the worst pain as a writer), but talked about how pleased she was with the decisions made, and the way she teased out the in-between moments that she hadn’t fully explored before. In her eyes, it ultimately made it all the book she was aiming to create at the start, even if it took some meandering to get there.
I think one of the most interesting things she discussed, though, were the lines she had to draw. Not the map in the front of the book (even though it’s a cool map, and she’s had readers tell her that it makes the book even scarier because it provides scale!), but the moral lines. Bodily autonomy and the violation thereof come up a lot in Em and Gyre’s interactions, since Em can control the suit Gyre is in remotely if she deems it necessary. There’s a problem with trust and truth that Caitlin elaborated on, too, where her characters are not always privy to the truth, or alter it in their interactions with each other, and where the characters cannot trust one another because of the things they’ve done, but also must in order to simply survive the caves. There’s no black and white, only this incredibly dangerous and fascinating gray area. This also means the violation of bodily autonomy and the issues of trust could be something worth a trigger warning for some readers, so brace yourself for that if you decide to pick up The Luminous Dead.
And last of all, besides the lovely short chat we had at signing (IT’S THE AGE OF GAYS IN SPACE, WE AGREED), I appreciated that she told us up front that there is a hopeful ending to the story in some ways. She’s not entirely doom and gloom (the way she phrased it was that it wasn’t something like “rocks fall and everyone dies oh no”), and leaves a little room for the light at the end of the tunnel. How she does that in a book like this, I have no idea, but I’m excited to see how, and grateful for it as well. Personally, I’m tired of grim endings and hopeless pursuits. I want silver linings, however slim they are. I want the characters to have a fighting chance that they’re willing to take. Hope matters to me in particular ways I haven’t yet decided how to articulate. Maybe a future post on that?
But at the end of the day, I had a great time at this event, and I’m super looking forward to The Luminous Dead scaring the ever-loving hell out of me! Like, let’s go! Hit me with it! But after I turn in all my important papers, please. 😭
Anyways, look forward to a review some time in the near future (maybe? oof, look at that schedule of mine…), and in the meantime, I hope you get a chance to check out Caitlin’s book for yourself!
See you all around, and maybe don’t go in any caves any time soon after reading this book!