The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher
Back in the day, Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland had led the Fleet into battle against an implacable machine intelligence capable of devouring entire worlds. But after saving a planet, and getting a bum robot knee in the process, he finds himself relegated to one of the most remote backwaters in Fleetspace to oversee the decommissioning of a semi-deserted space station well past its use-by date.
But all is not well aboard the U-Star Coast City. The station’s reclusive Commandant is nowhere to be seen, leaving Cleveland to deal with a hostile crew on his own. Persistent malfunctions plague the station’s systems while interference from a toxic purple star makes even ordinary communications problematic. Alien shadows and whispers seem to haunt the lonely corridors and airlocks, fraying the nerves of everyone aboard.
Isolated and friendless, Cleveland reaches out to the universe via an old-fashioned space radio, only to tune in to a strange, enigmatic signal: a woman’s voice that seems to echo across a thousand light-years of space. But is the transmission just a random bit of static from the past—or a warning of an undying menace beyond mortal comprehension?
After an explosively rip-snorting prologue, to confirm our protagonist’s suitably heroic credentials, there is a distinct and deliberate change of pace. Things slow right down and the author takes time to establish just how vast and lonely deep space is. There is no other human presence anywhere remotely near the U-Star Coast City and that isolation is key to setting the tone for the entire novel. A single ship anchored alone on the very edges of the universe surrounded on all sides by nothing but blackness. The only other thing nearby is a strange anomaly that Fleet scientists are attempting to unravel. You get a sense of just how difficult life is aboard station, boredom and claustrophobia being constant companions. Slowly the crew start to pick up on the fact that there is something noticeably wrong. Some of the signs are reasonably overt; communications and environmental controls fluctuate and fail intermittently, colleagues disappear without warning, while other clues are more subtle. You get a distinct impression that there is an air of creepy stillness that permeates the entire station.
There are various ranks of personnel aboard the Coast City but it’s the squad of marines based there that really stand out. They are exactly the sort of mismatched bunch you’d expect them to be. Christopher does a fine job of describing the easy camaraderie that exists within the group. In their down time they goof off, get wasted and bicker with one another, but as soon as they are called upon to do their respective jobs then they are all about the professionalism. They do feel a little like characters you’ve met before, but that’s no bad thing really. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be massively surprised if amidst the group one of grunts had a passing resemblance to Bill Paxton and another like Michael Biehn.
I was talking to my wife the other day and she mentioned her desire to re-watch The Haunting. We got to talking about the film, our favourite scenes and how it still manages to remain such an effective chiller after fifty plus years. One of the key reasons for this is that rather than focusing directly on the horror, the plot diverts the viewer’s gaze just left of centre. Instead of revealing exactly what is going and peaking way too soon, there are multiple, often incredibly subtle, suggestions that the worst is always happening just out of shot, just off screen. The Burning Dark successfully employs the literary equivalent of that same technique. Idaho and his colleagues spend a large chunk of the novel on the back foot, their often understandable confusion adds to the ever-growing horror. They can’t adequately explain the stranger and stranger phenomena they are all beginning to experience.
When it comes to the most effective horror, and most especially really good ghost stories, managing that slow build up to create an unbearable tension is key. It’s all about getting the pacing right. The good news is that The Burning Dark succeeds on that score. The writing is peppered with some wonderfully sinister moments and you can feel it all building to a conclusion. Personally I can’t imagine anyone would want to hang around the Coast City for very long, there’s an air of creepy stillness that comes across as palpable. That would freak me right out.
In some respects this novel is a unique beast, it certainly does it’s best to defy anything close to resembling categorisation. The writing draws inspiration from various different genres and blends them together well. Is there a term exists for a love story, hiding amidst horror, disguised as an epic science fiction/action adventure mystery? We can be in little doubt that there is a requirement for one now, seeing as that’s exactly what Adam Christopher has written. I’ve read quite a lot of Mr Christopher’s back catalogue now and I think this is maybe my favourite so far. You just can’t beat a haunted house story, especially when it has the added bonus of being set in outer space. This first novel of the Spiders Wars series kicks things off in grand style blending together a whole melting pot of ideas including everything from Japanese folklore to the early days of space exploration. I can’t wait to discover where things are going to go next.
The Burning Dark is published by Titan Books and is available from 28th March 2014.