The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling is a sci-fi horror nightmare! Think The Descent meets Prometheus vibes, only two characters, and a terrifyingly complex and evil cave system.
Set in a distant future, humanity is spread around different planets. Our main character, Gyre, lives on one of the less sought after planets where people spend their days trying to leave to get to greener pastures. A main source of jobs on this planet is cave diving. Contractors will go down underground to mine for minerals and metals. It’s incredibly dangerous though as there are these creatures called Tunnelers that live underground and make quick work of eating anyone that gets into their path.
Gyre has accepted a one time job with a company that will send her deep down into a mine. It’s all very secretive and she doesn’t really have any idea what the mission is. She’s also never officially gone cave diving professionally before and lied to get this job. Gyre’s Mother left when she was younger and she’s determined to leave this horrible planet and find her. This one job will pay her enough that she’ll be able to accomplish that. As long as she survives, of course.
There are many fascinating things about this novel so let’s dive right in:
While we don’t learn about the other planets or what type of futuristic world this is, we do learn about the suit that’s worn by Gyre to go cave diving. She has to have surgery before getting into the suit to reroute her digestive system because the suit does everything for her. It’s skin tight and functions as a second skin. She implants canisters into the suit that feed her, it continuously hydrates her, cycles out her waste, and can lock into place providing a bed for her.
The suit is fascinating! But it’s also incredibly claustrophobic and almost becomes its’ own character near the end.
FULL SPOILERS GOING FORWARD
There’s only two main characters - Gyre and Em. Em is the person overseeing Gyre while she’s in the cave. And as the story unravels we learn a lot about Em and her true intentions. The suit allows Em to speak to Gyre and control her which at first causes a lot of tension. Em takes it upon herself to drug Gyre when she needs her to calm down, or fill her with adrenaline when she needs her to wake up. Gyre quickly puts a stop to this, forcing Em to accept that Gyre is her own independent person. That’s she’s a human inside of this suit.
Their dynamic is a turbulent one. When Gyre finds out the real reason Em has sent her down here it causes a huge distrust. Em’s Father disappeared in this cave years ago when Em was just a child, along with their friends. Her Mother was the only one who made it out alive, but after setting up the company that Em now runs, she heads back into the cave, lost forever. Em spends her life sending down cavers to find the remains of her parents and get some final closure.
Gyre reluctantly agrees to continue on when she finds this out, only because she has her own motivations to find her own Mother. What follows is an epic and terrifying journey through this barely explored cave system.
Gyre constantly battles the elements - almost drowning multiple times, having her batteries run out on her, coming upon missing staches. It’s an incredibly tense read that will have you sweating in fear.
This is absolutely a horror novel over a sci-fi one. There are some scenes that are so tense and terrifying, I had to constantly remind myself to breathe. One scene in particular has Gyre locked out from communication with Em, her battery down to 4%, starving, terrified, alone in the dark fighting for her life to get to a stache that can save her. She almost doesn’t make it and it’s an incredibly tense moment. It takes an incredible amount of talent to write something as poignant as that scene and fuck, I was so impressed.
Gyre’s slow descent into madness is a fascinating read. She’s such an unreliable narrator and yet you constantly believe everything she’s seeing until Em cuts in and you realize Gyre’s been hallucinating the entire time. By the end of the novel you’re screaming at Gyre not to give up, not to let the cave take her, as she lies practically dead on the ground.
“If she just turned around, she would see them: Isolde, or some other stranger - perhaps Hanmei, waterlogged, or Jennie, legs broken into impossible angles - waiting for her. It didn’t matter that there were no hiding places in this passage, that it was impossible for anybody to have followed her. Down here, she could imagine them emerging from the blankness of the walls, as phantom-thin as the insects.”
Em’s descent is almost an opposite madness. She starts out like a mad dictator, bossing Gyre around and controlling her, caring about nothing but getting the job completed. She’s had 35 cavers attempt this, 27 that died, but Em has removed her emotions from the job. It’s not until Gyre begins to allow Em to unravel, to have her face her emotions that Em finally seems to gain her sanity. There’s one incredibly emotional scene when Gyre finally finds the dead bodies of Em’s Father and his friends. She forces Em to watch as she lays out the bodies and holds a funeral for them. It’s an interesting read to watch the two characters run from one end of the spectrum to the other.
There’s so much to unpack in this novel, including whether you believe that the cave is alive or not. Throughout the story Gyre constantly encounters what appear to be the ghosts of those that have died in the cave. But Gyre is also losing her mind and her body is failing her, and you learn that only Gyre can see these specters. As Gyre is waiting at the end to be saved, she speaks as if the cave is another entity. The cave is calling to her, begging her to move away from the safety and the sun, to sink lower into the cave and her demise. Even after she’s left and is safe and healing, she still feels that call. Ultimately, it’s up to you as the reader to determine whether you choose to believe the spirits are real, and if the cave is a living entity, sucking the souls back into its depths.
“She could still feel the pull, the relentless tug, the invitation to climb back down and forget the world above, give in and close off all the pain and the struggle and the loneliness.”
While you spend the entire novel with the Tunnelers as a real and constant threat at the back of your mind, it isn’t until the finale that a Tunneler arrives. And ironically by that point it’s not even terrifying, because everything Gyre has had to face is much worse. And Gyre agrees as she stares down the Tunneler, screaming into its face.
The Luminous Dead is an absolutely stunning debut novel from Caitlin Starling and I can’t wait to read what else she has to offer. I highly recommend it to any horror or sci-fi fan, but for those of you who are claustrophobic...beware.
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