Echoes of haunting science fiction films from Solaris to Alien to Event Horizon ring through Adam Christopher’s The Burning Dark, although the bone-chilling tales of the late James Herbert might be a more apt literary comparison.
Christopher’s latest finds the human race at war with the Spiders, a mechanical race with ships capable of consuming planets. Hero Abraham Idaho Cleveland, or Ida, is given one last job: overseeing the final stages of the deconstruction of outpost station Coast City. His problems start nearly as soon as he arrives. The temperatures fluctuate wildly, the local marines hate his guts and there seems to be no trace of his war record.
While tinkering with an old radio, Ida finds an ancient frequency with a voice in pain that’s calling across the stars. As he starts to think he’s being persecuted, spectral visions begin to appear to him and other crew members. Something is happening on board the Coast City, and it may be too late to stop it.
The Burning Dark gets off to a strong start, as Ida’s white-knuckle stories of his acts of heroism are followed by his becoming the persona non grata on board a gigantic, nearly deserted space station. Christopher sets the scene expertly, using the familiar setting to good effect. He’s aiming for a sci-fi Shirley Jackson, although he doesn’t hit the master’s incredibly high watermark.
Problems do arise once the focus drifts from Ida and his paranoia. The other characters aren’t as well fleshed-out, and our knowledge of the films mentioned above at the very least means that we’re at least one step ahead of the characters most of the time. To his credit, Christopher realises this and clues the reader in on several twists before the penny drops for Ida and his fellow hauntees.
The second half of The Burning Dark becomes inconsistent, with overly-familiar sequences of the space marines stalking empty corridors and the usual ‘Just leave!’ issues start to undermine a good set-up. However, the final 100 pages pack some real punches (a séance is particularly creepy) and when Christopher focuses on the emotional connection between the characters and the supernatural other it really pays off.
As the first part of the Spider Wars trilogy, The Burning Dark is a promising start, if not as white-knuckle terrifying as we’d hoped.