By George Ebey
Caitlin Starling brings us an unsettling tale of terror with her much-lauded debut novel, THE LUMINOUS DEAD.
Gyre Price lies her way onto a solo caving expedition on a mining planet, following the promise of a hefty paycheck and a skilled topside crew to keep her company and help her survive the dangers she’ll face below ground. Instead, she gets Em.
Deceitful, single-minded, and dangerous, Em won’t hesitate to put Gyre in danger to further her own ends. Gyre refuses to die for Em, but finding a way to stop her means staying in the depths of the cave a little longer. And yet the deeper she goes, the less certain Gyre is that she’s alone underground. The way out is long and treacherous, and Em and Gyre might just need each other to survive…
Starling’s debut has earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, along with favorable comparisons to Andy Weir’s The Martian and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. The Big Thrill recently caught up with Starling to discuss her chilling new story.
What first drew you to writing fiction with horror elements?
To tell you the truth, I’m an anxious person. I have nightmares fairly regularly, I worry about ax murderers lurking in my closet, and (sometimes) I’m still afraid of the dark. When I think conflict, my mind immediately goes to things that go bump in the night. It’s just natural to me!
But on a craft level, horror elements also let me push my characters in ways that don’t have immediately clear answers, for them or the reader. They also provide an easy way to keep ratcheting up the stakes, which lets me spend more time on how the characters respond.
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
Setting (with a side of plot)—I knew I wanted a two-person cast, one on the radio, the other at her mercy in a cave. The rest of the plot, setting, and character grew from there.
Tell us about your main character, Gyre Price. What has her journey been like up until now?
Gyre lives on a planet that was settled exclusively for its mineral resources, which have since proved… difficult to access. The community she grew up in is essentially a gold rush boom town that was already dying off by the time she was born. There weren’t a lot of options growing up for safe (let alone fulfilling) ways to make a living, and her home life wasn’t supportive either—her mother left without explanation when she was a child, and her father checked out and hasn’t checked back in yet, over ten years later.
She’s had to grow up self-sufficient and cynical, with a monumental chip on her shoulder. But she’s also taken the hobby she picked up as an escape—rock climbing—and forged it into a path off-planet and into a better life. And she’s not above lying or otherwise putting herself in danger to get there a little faster.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
Finding a way to keep the plot interesting when there’s only one character physically present was a huge challenge, but also the most interesting component of the story to me. I learned a lot about dialogue, emotional pacing, and how to write an engaging, active internal experience.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
THE LUMINOUS DEAD is, ultimately, about the stories we tell to define ourselves and to guide our futures. Both Gyre and the other main character, Em, have trapped themselves in cycles based on assumptions they’ve made about their worth and their options. They’ve both lost people very dear to them, and though it’s very tempting to stay in that loss, to not forget the people they love, ultimately you can’t live in death.
Was there anything new you discovered, or that surprised you, as you wrote this book?
Caves are terrifying! Expedition cavers can lose up to a pound and a half of body weight a day, and they’re subject to something called the Rapture—a panic attack on steroids that comes from being below the surface, in the dark, for hours, days, or even weeks.
What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?
The characters have to be keeping something from themselves, as much as from each other. Related, the characters need the freedom to mess up, sometimes spectacularly. I was missing both in the earlier drafts of THE LUMINOUS DEAD. I had the overarching lies and failures, the big plot pieces, but not the little moments where the characters falter. It led to a lot of contortions trying to keep things interesting and moving, until my editor suggested I make my characters a little less clever and a lot more human.
A good setting helps, too. In a literal sense, Gyre and Em are alone with each other through most of the book. But that’s not quite accurate—they’re alone in the cave. By letting the cave be its own character, with its own personality (atmosphere) and goals (dangers for Gyre to face), the tension can stay unsettlingly high even when the characters are having an emotional breather, or the reader is otherwise in a quieter phase.
Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, THE LUMINOUS DEAD, comes out from HarperVoyager on April 2, 2019. Caitlin also works in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and is always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia.
Find more of Caitlin’s work on her website and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.