Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling is a book that has finally gotten me back into reading horror. And let’s face it, every book is better when it has queer leads.
The Luminous Dead follows Gyre, a caver who lies about her credentials to secure her place on an exclusive expedition with a big payout. But, the expedition is not what she expected and neither is her handler, Em. Em is hellbent on the success of the mission, regardless of Gyre’s wellbeing. She knows all about Gyre’s lies and isn’t afraid to use that information against her.
But, something more is going wrong. Stockpiled supplies are missing, there are unexpected changes to the route, and Gyre can’t shake the feeling she is being followed.
The Luminous Dead had me pulling my feet off the ground with every creepy moment. This isn’t slasher horror, but a slowly building dread as things go wrong and events are unexplained. This is an engaging story without the monotony you might expect from a story taking place in a limited cave system.
When Gyre must double back on her route, it feeds the growing sense of dread, rather than feeling repetitive and boring. I thought that Starling maintained the tension well throughout the story. As Gyre becomes more unsure of herself and Em, her sense of reality goes down the drain and the tension ratchets up.
I worried about the romance before going into this one. I’ve seen reviews describing the romance in the book as toxic lesbians. And, my friends, I am not here for toxic relationships at all. Give me angst, secrets, misunderstandings, but keep the toxic romances far, far away. I decided to give it a go because I need more queer sci-fi horror. And by more, I mean any sci-fi horror. Even just a crumb, please.
Gyre and Em’s entanglement is not as toxic as the synopsis on the back cover makes it out to be. When Em drugs Gyre, it is not from a sense of cruelty, it is for Gyre’s own good and safety. But when Gyre opposes Em’s action, she sets a boundary which Em respects (for the most part). Em isn’t a controlling sadist. She is a traumatized and goal oriented woman whose quiet and inhuman efficiency is a coping mechanism. Her cool and collected facade falls apart as she starts to connect with Gyre.
I thought that Em’s motivation was clear and consistent. It doesn’t make her right, and she has done terrible things trying to reach her goal, but her actions all make sense within the scope of her motivation.
The Luminous Dead was not a five star read for me (it was close) because of Gyre’s motivation. Motivation is so important for horror. I think the story lacked something for me because I didn’t appreciate her motivation.
Gyre is at first driven by monetary gain. She knows that Em will not pay her if she leaves the mission incomplete. This drives her forward despite her misgivings and the threats to her safety. But, this is an external motivation, and it reaches a breaking point. Gyre is ready to give up, when she comes to a disturbing revelation and her motivation shifts. Now, the desire to complete the mission so that Em does not subject anyone else to these conditions driver her. And, I don’t know. This motivation didn’t ring particularly true to me.
Gyre is a selfish character, so this shift in motivation doesn’t feel realistic. And honestly, I’m just don’t have an interest in characters who decide to do something because it is “right” or altruistic. It’s a boring motivation. Gyre’s new motivation affected the stakes for me and they only reason that I ended up liking The Luminous Dead as much as I did is because Starling turns up the creepiness factor around this point.
I still highly recommend The Luminous Dead as a fantastic queer sci-fi horror. This book made Caitlin Starling one of my new favourite authors, and I am excited for all of her upcoming horror stories.