Humans don’t like the unknown: it works against every single instinct evolution has built into us. If we can’t explain something, we find a way to do so based on pre-existing constructs: that’s why every culture has its myths and legends, and why we have religion and science. Humans can’t help but ask questions, and we will find answers to those questions, somehow, some way. However, once we settle on a preferred construct, a preferred answer to a question, it’s very hard to change our minds when another possible answer comes along—even if that new answer might be a better response to the question in the first place. Trying to accept new answers, new approaches, can lead to conflict, and that’s not something the human brain likes any more than it likes not knowing.
One the greatest unknowns still left to our imagination is outer space. Though humanity has been looking at the night sky almost since it had the capacity to question, we’ve only really been exploring it for a very short amount of time; even then, we’re not doing the exploration ourselves, instead sending out proxies like probes and robots because outer space is far too harsh an environment for our species to survive. Therefore, outer space is prime fodder for writers who like to speculate on the nature of the unknown: that is, science fiction writers, and horror writers. And ever since H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos became popular, there is significant overlap between the two.
Adam Christopher’s novel The Burning Dark is an example of that overlap, though it doesn’t look like it at first. Humanity is currently at war with a bio-mechanical alien race called the Spiders (so named because they look like Earth’s arachnids), and they vary in size from “cargo transport” to “star”. They are energy-devourers, and the largest ones, called Mother Spiders, are capable of destroying entire solar systems in very short order, sucking dry each and every star and planet they come across. The war hasn’t been going well for humanity, and desperate measures need to be taken.
Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland—Ida for short—took one of those measures, and came out of it with a robotic knee and a medal that says he’s a hero. One would think that after such excellent service, he’d be able to retire in peace, but that’s not the case. Instead, he’s sent to do one last job: decommissioning a research station orbiting a strange star called Shadow. While there, he learns that things aren’t quite right: key people are missing, the station’s systems malfunction at the oddest and sometimes deadliest of times, and Shadow’s light makes communication with the rest of the galaxy all but impossible. But there’s something else, too: something that lurks just on the edges of the senses, both human and machine. And it wants out.
One of the most fun things about starting a novel is trying to figure out what it’s all about, and infer where it’s going to go from the first few chapters. The reader’s first guess isn’t always the right one, but the first few chapters go a long way towards laying the groundwork for what to expect—and what not to expect.
The first few chapters of The Burning Dark, though, are unusual, mostly because they don’t fit together in any way that makes sense. For example, the very first chapter the reader encounters is titled “Yomi”, which opens with the following:
In the shadowland of the dead, she sat and cried for her husband, but the prison was sealed and she could not leave and nobody could hear her.
The shadows surrounded her, swarming her like living, breathing creatures. The shadows caressed her skin, holding the rotting flesh onto her bones. Things crawled over her and ate her flesh, but the shadows kept her firm, kept her whole as the things ate, and ate, and ate.
It was too late.
Readers with a firm grasp of world mythology will likely recognise the source of the above, but even knowing where it comes from doesn’t make it feel any less out of place. After all, most readers who pick up this novel expect sci-fi, not mythology or fantasy.
The next chapter, titled “The Relief of Tau Retore”, fits better into reader expectations, beginning thusly:
This is how the shit went down. Lemme tell you about it, all right.
We came out of quick space at oh-fifteen, which, even pushing warp as we were, was still too damn late. And when we popped back into the universe above Tau Retore, there was already a gap in the arrowhead. One ship hadn’t made it—engine burnout in quick space, or some such. That can happen, and the loss—hell, any loss—was a shock. But we had a job to do first and my crew was fast, filling the gap without even needing an order, sliding the pack of cruisers together just so. It was pretty sweet, lemme tell you.
The tone is very much that of an old war veteran telling a favourite story, thus raising expectations that this will be a military sci-fi novel, and told from the first-person perspective. At this point, I thought that things were going to be on the up-and-up, since I really liked the narrator’s voice in this chapter, and hoped it would be the one telling the rest of the story.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. After “The Relief of Tau Retore” the novel goes to third-person limited and more or less stays there, telling the story of what happens on the U-Star Coast City through the eyes of a specific set of characters. This is where the novel takes on its true character: that of a horror novel set in space, along the lines of the movie Event Horizon and the Dead Space video game series.
Now, these shifts in genre aren’t a bad thing, as a rule: after all, a writer isn’t limited to the conventions of one genre if the conventions of another suit their purpose better. But this also implies that the writer is capable of making those genres play nice with each other: a skill some writers have in spades, and others don’t.
Unfortunately, Christopher is one of the latter. Though The Burning Dark is, at its core, a horror novel, it is still wedded to the conventions of sci-fi by virtue of its setting. This means a certain amount of world-building is not only expected, but absolutely necessary. This is where Christopher fails: he doesn’t do the necessary world-building to ground the story’s key elements, thus causing the entire novel to suffer.
The first thing the lack of world-building does is undermine the nature of the monster at the heart of this novel. Christopher tries to obscure the monster’s plans, and it does work, to a degree, but when those motives are revealed the lack of supporting world-building makes them feel shallow and uninteresting. It also doesn’t help that it’s never really explained how such an entity could exist in the first place: there is some hand-waving done in appropriate places, but when world-building is so thin on the ground, such hand-waving breaks any suspension of disbelief a reader may have—if the reader even had any, given that there’s no world-building to actually help create a suspension of disbelief. When one ties all this in with the fact that the monster is revealed far too early—as early as the first third of the novel, but readers who know the source of the content for “Yomi” will be able to pinpoint exactly when they identify the monster—the novel’s scare factor just falls apart at the seams.
The lack of solid world-building also undermines the characters. It’s near-impossible to get attached to any of them because the reader doesn’t know who they are and where they’ve come from. Some of their backstories are told because they are pertinent to the novel’s overall plot, but beyond that there’s nothing else to encourage the reader to invest in them emotionally. This also undermines whatever scare factor the novel might have, because if the reader isn’t attached to the characters, then they won’t care what happens to them, which means it’s hard to feel scared for them.
If there’s one good thing about this novel, it’s the concept. The Spider War itself sounds utterly intriguing, and if Christopher had chosen to write a different story with that as the focus, the novel could have been a different beast entirely. I can easily imagine how The Burning Dark could be a vastly different book, if one eliminated the Event Horizon-style horror storyline: a story about a war veteran on the verge of retirement, sent to a distant outpost for one last low-stakes assignment, only to find himself suddenly on the front lines of the war he thought he’d left behind. True, that doesn’t sound like a very original plot, but it would certainly be more fun to read. With enough room for characterisation and world-building, I think it could even become something truly spectacular.
Unfortunately, that’s not the novel Christopher wrote, and the reader, therefore, must make-do with what they have been given. The sad thing is that what they have been given isn’t really much to look at.
Overall, The Burning Dark doesn’t quite live up to whatever potential it initially has. There are parts of it that are fun to read, but even those parts can’t rescue it from its flaws: in particular, a lack of really supportive world-building. This lack of world-building creates issues in characterisation and plot that make it difficult to feel really scared by, of, or for anything or anyone in this novel—which is sad, because this is supposed to be a horror novel, and therefore it should be scary, but it isn’t. Its one saving grace is its interesting concept; had Christopher chosen to eliminate the horror story plot line and just go for a straight-up military sci-fi novel, this could have been a far, far more interesting book.