Space, the freaky frontier. On a planet that is increasingly bereft of unknown places on the map marked with “here there be monsters,” space remains a great unknown. It’s full of potential, and it can fill us in turn with hope for the future, and the horror of the unseen. The idea of discovery, of what might be out there, is as frightening as it is compelling. That’s human nature for you. Look at the big scary sky thing, mom, let’s poke it with a rocket and see what happens. But which is worse—thinking that there might be something up there, or believing that we are completely alone in the entire universe? And that, I guess, is why we keep returning to the idea of space—even when it’s absolutely horrifying. Which is how we get space horror books.
Space horror books are a little subset of sci-fi horror, but where as sci-fi horror can take place here on Mother Earth, space horror takes place out there, beyond the ordinary.
If you want to get really picky you could claim that space horror books only count as space horror if they take place in the vacuum of, you guessed it, space. But one of the best parts of space exploration is the possibility of strange new planets, and unknown life forms. So a few of these books do take place on solid ground. But you couldn’t get farther from earth if you tried. The rest, for you sticklers out there, do in fact take place out in that horrifying black void we call space.
So buckle up, and engage thrusters (or something like that). Let’s warp our way to some of the darkest corners of the universe.
An alien parasite that lives inside its host? By now Ridley Scott’s chestbursters are pop culture legend, and any mention of unwanted alien stowaways brings to mind John Hurt sprawled out on a table in Alien, blood spewing from his chest. But Darcy Coates’s parasites are interested in more than just gestating in their hosts before chewing their way out through the sternum. These little nightmares wear their victims like human suits, adopting their personalities and spreading unseen through the human population. Until hundreds of space stations start going dark, and humanity finally realizes that they’re already outnumbered by a threat they never detected.
Starling’s The Luminous Dead has been up and down lists like this since it was released. I have heard nothing but good things about this book and I still haven’t read it. For which I deserve to be dropped down a scary mine shaft on a remote planet. Sadly for Gyre Price it is her, not me, who ends up deep underground wearing a suit that gives someone else total control of her body. It was supposed to be safe, just a less-than-easy way to earn the money she needs to change her life. But her surface team—and in particular Em, who is in control of the body suit—is keeping secrets, and the deeper Gyre descends into the caves the more she is forced to depend on someone she does not even know if she can trust.
Necromancy…in…spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! I’m probably the millionth person to make that joke and honestly I don’t care. Because this is the bone-tacular, sci-fi fantasy book of my dreams. So why am I including it immediately after a chilling alien horror, and a claustrophobic space caving trip gone wrong? Because Gideon the Ninth also has some really fantastic, blood curdling gore and body horror; because this book has more bones than a 14th century plague city’s ossuary; and because sometimes the best horror – is as funny as it is scary. Since this book has received a ton of attention leading up to its release last week, I won’t say much more than this: if you’re trying to get out of town before you’re forced to become an undead, ossifying nun, remember to sneak out the back. Or else your lifelong nemesis will force you to compete in some really strange competitions.
You remember that emotionally scarring episode of Doctor Who where *spoilers* it turns out that a giant Spaceship version of London is sailing through space on the back of a giant space whale that they torture to keep it moving? Yeah, me too. *sob* That’s not the exact premise of Escaping Exodus, though. No, it gets is worse. Seske Kaleigh is heir to the commander of a massive city-sized star ship, alright. But this one is actually carved from the insides of a massive space beast. Forget zapping their ride’s brain with electricity—her clan actually burrow into the living beast and start harvesting and repurposing its body. WHILE IT’S STILL ALIVE. In case you missed that part. That’s a big ol’ yikes from me. If that doesn’t sound like enough horror for you, just keep reading. Because, once again, it gets worse, forcing Seske to take a hard look at what it costs to keep her people alive, and whether the price is still worth paying.
Speaking of horrifying Doctor Who episodes reincarnated, Gilman’s Dark Orbit takes place on an “extraordinary crystalline planet”! What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. But thankfully the appearance of the plant is where the resemblance to the extremely disturbing “Midnight” episode ends. The new planet that exoethnologist (where do I go to school for that, because yes please) Sara Callicot is sent to investigate is inhabited by an unknown life form, but not the terrifying mimic kind. Still, when one crew member is murdered and another disappears, it becomes clear that something isn’t right, and Sara and her crewmates may be in danger.
Do you know what the space equivalent of a haunted house is? An abandoned space ship. Which is probably why all you have to do is say “abandoned space ship” and just like that somehow I’m buying another book. When you say abandoned space ship infected by a lethal space virus, I just hand you my bank account info. House of Wisdom is a massive exploration vessel, and it was abandoned when a deadly viral outbreak managed to kill nearly everyone on board in only a few hours. But to Zahra, House of Wisdom doesn’t look like a death trap; it looks like dollar signs. If she can kidnap the sole survivor of the incident and use them to get on board, she could salvage the whole thing. After all, it’s been ten years. There couldn’t possible be anything left alive on board…
Jessica, would you stop putting titles that aren’t “actually” horror on the space horror books list? Okay but listen: if your whole world is destroyed by an atomic fire, and you wake up inside a massive alien ship surrounded by aliens that want to use you and the other survivors to revivify their genetics by breeding a new race together? That’s a horror story. Dawn is creepy and uncomfortable, and it’s clear that Butler intended it to be so. The situation that Lilith Iyapo wakes up to on the Oankali spaceship is complex. On the one hand, both species need to merge to survive, but unlike the Oankali, who have this spaceship and the possibility of finding another primitive species to swap genes with, the humans have nothing. They are at the mercy of their savior/captives. What follows is a complicated discussion about racism, sexism, consent, community, and ultimately survival.
Come on, you know I had to get at least one Alien universe book on here, right? I mean, a foreign plant full of strange new xenobiology, a queer protagonist, space colony life (not as delightful as you might think), and everyone’s favorite “perfect organism” running around in a blaze of teeth and talons. What’s not to love? Olivia and twin sister Viola are planet hoppers. Their xenobiologist parents have dragged them all across the known universe chasing obscure alien species to research. All Olivia wants it so put down roots, preferable on Earth where Viola can finally get the medical help she needs, and leave the “wonders” of alien biology behind. Then a new and terrifying alien species invades, dark family secrets threaten the life the twins have always known, and in the end it is only Olivia’s knowledge of xenobiology and her love for her sister that can save them both. I loved this book. Granted I’m biased because I’m a bit obsessed with this franchise, but it really is just so good. Scary, thrilling, action-packed; it’s not a very long book but it is tense.
If you take one thing away from this list of space horror books, maybe it should be: spending centuries in stasis is a really bad idea. I mean honestly, when has anyone ever woken up from 100 years in cryosleep and everything has been fine? No. Definitely always a bad idea. Tuck Morgan and his crew have been sleeping for hundreds of years aboard a ship that shelters a chunk of Earth. And since they apparently never heard of a power nap, they never woke up long enough to find out that their precious cargo is that last hope for the human race. Laura Cruz knows though. She knows what Tuck’s cargo means and where to find it. Monsters? The impending doom of the human race? A ghost ship sailing silent and still through the stars, its occupants sleeping through the centuries? Sign me up. (Just not for the stasis part.)
I’m going to make it into a song. Space virus, spaaaaaaaaace virus, there’s no flu shot for the space virus. But you’re going to wish there was. A routine search-and-rescue mission to a distant planet takes a very dark turn for the skeleton crew sent to investigate. When they respond to the SOS they don’t find survivors in need of assistance, they find bodies and an abandoned drilling colony in chaos. All they can do is try to discover what happened, but the answer may not be as simple as bad food or illness. If the mysteriously “abandoned” mining colony thing is giving you Pitch Black vibes, by the way, you are not alone. So: Riddick fans, this one’s for you.
I probably could have split this list in to “viruses in space” and “monsters in space.” Sanctuary definitely falls on the monster side of the equation. Kenzie, the main character, has been training all her life to become an elite guard at a space prison for superpowered teens. Sanctuary, run by scary powerful space corporation Omnistellar Concepts, is intended to contain those junior superhumans deemed too dangerous to remain on earth. I’m not sure being an elite guard at a prison for people who are different is a good life goal, but I’m also not sure that Kenzie has very good role models give that her mom (and commanding officer—yikes) is the definition of a hardass. Which is why when Kensize gets taken hostage by the prisoners of Sanctuary during a riot, mommy dearest basically says “sorry dear, we don’t negotiate with wrongly imprisoned terrorists.” Leaving Kenzie no choice but to forget everything she’s ever learned about the prison’s inhabitants, and team up with them in order to survive. Especially when something bigger and scarier than any guard breaks in to Sanctuary.
If there’s one thing I love about space horror (hah, I love everything about space horror books) it is the preponderance of unnerving ships. Whether they’re abandoned and crawling with space plague, besieged by monsters, or just plain possessed (I see you, Event Horizon, and I love you), the ships of space horror are big, scary, and most are characters in their own right. Some, like Cyclo, are even alive. Cyclo is a biological ship. It’s sentient, it can communicate with main character Hana. It’s also dying. When Hana wakes up one day to find her mother and the entire crew missing Cyclo tells Hana it’s because they just packed up and left without her. After all, Hana isn’t actually supposed to exist. Meanwhile, Fenn is a member of a crew of mercenaries hired for a suicide mission: they are supposed to board the supposedly empty Cyclo and monitor its death throes. When he meets Hana, the two end up working together to discover why Cyclo is dying, what happened to Hana’s mother, and whether or not there is a way for both of them to leave the ship alive.
Spaaaaaaaaaaace virus!…sorry. This time it’s a plague ridden space station, so, you know, at least we’re moving up in the world. And so is main character Lindley Hamilton, who has been in charge of the Lusca ever since the original crew (including the station’s command hierarchy) were killed by an unknown virus. But being king of the castle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s all Lindley can do to keep the station together. They’ve lost communication with Earth, food’s running low, and the Lusca is falling apart around her. Then one of the second generation teens dies, and Lindley must face the possibility that the deadly virus that killed their parents has mutated and returned for the rest of them. Or else one of the 80 teens trapped on board is a murderer. A bit of space horror, a bit of mystery thriller, This Splintered Silence takes a serious look at the grief, growing up, and survival.
I wasn’t sure if Illuminae was scary enough to include on a list of space horror, even though I knew there were facets of the plot that were inherently scary. But once again we have a deadly, mutating plague, producing terrifying results, contained within the confines of a crammed evacuation fleet. Infectious virus, close —it’s a CDC nightmare, really. And I thought to myself, yeah. That counts. Especially when you add in an AI that is supposed to be protecting the passengers, but may have gone rogue, and a a group of people who are supposed to be “in charge” but are keeping suspiciously mum about the horrors on board. Plus Illuminae is a mixed media book and I am weak in the face of storytelling through hacked files, medical reports, instant messages, etc.
When it comes to the vastness of space, there is as much to frighten us as there is to inspire us. Maybe someday we’ll get out there and find that there’s nothing between the stars but darkness and ever more distant stars. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find out that all the horrors we’ve been dreaming up are pale imitations of what lurks in the shadow of far off plants. For now I guess we’ll keep reading space horror books and wondering..
Until next time horror fans, hang tight to that flashlight.