In the following email interview about her new sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead (paperback, Kindle), writer Caitlin Starling cites a handful of other books as well as video games that had a big influence on her story. But she also talks about one movie that may have been an influence as well, a movie she oddly hadn’t seen.
Let’s begin with an overview of the plot. So, what is The Luminous Dead about?
Gyre Price, a woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a small planet, lies her way onto a dangerous solo caving mission so that she can get enough money to get off world. She thinks she’ll also get a lot of high-tech support, and she does, but only one person to manage it all: Em. Em is cold, manipulative, deceitful, and mysterious. They hate each other, and that’s before Gyre starts finding bodies of cavers.
And then the ghosts show up.
Where did you get the idea for The Luminous Dead and how did the story evolve as you wrote it?
It was a weird confluence of things, like I think most books are. I’d been playing a lot of Zombies, Run, which is a running game that tells the story via a character addressing “you,” the player character, through your headphones. I’d also been playing Dear Esther, which is creepy and has a very nice glowy cave in it. Add to that reading Dune as a teenager, a love of the Portal games — where a decidedly manipulative and malicious and deeply fascinating A.I. keeps talking to you and taunting you — and writing fanfiction during college that often had only two-person casts, and you get The Luminous Dead.
The version of The Luminous Dead that went on submission to editors had a structure very similar to The Descent (though I hadn’t seen it yet) — at about the halfway point, Gyre was attacked by the first of several creepy corpse-like monsters, and those attacks escalated as Gyre tried to escape the cave with Em’s help. It was fun, and my monsters were exciting! But my editor suggested taking them out altogether because he thought the relationship between Em and Gyre was more interesting and that, more importantly, it was what I was more passionate about.
So I had to rewrite half the book, which was a lot, but ultimately very worth it. The change gave me more room to explore Em and Gyre’s shifting, sometimes contradictory positions, let Gyre come to trust Em much more slowly (and therefore more realistically, in my opinion), and meant I got to trade terror for dread. It also made me get creative as to how to keep the tension going, and how to reach a satisfying conclusion.
And how did your work as a “spreadsheet-wrangler” help you figure out the story or how to tell it? Also, what is a “spreadsheet-wrangler”? Is it like wrangling cattle? Wrangling cats? Wrangling my neck?
I didn’t use much of the spreadsheet-wrangling, though I did keep a document tracking how long it was taking for Gyre to move between each part of the cave and how much battery power was getting used up, so that it could be largely consistent, and so that I could map out what had happened and when to previous cavers. Also wordcount tracking. I love a good wordcount tracker when I’m drafting.
As for the spreadsheet-wrangling itself, it’s mostly wrangling engineers, which is closer to cats than cattle! I run the pricing model for a manufacturing company, which means getting engineers to tell me how long they think it’ll take them to build something, and coordinating with buyers about how long it will take to get the materials, and program managers for what their customer can reasonably accept. It’s a nice departure from creative work. And it provides health insurance.
(It also lets me keep a needlessly complex TBR spreadsheet that tells me all sorts of fun facts about how I’m buying more books than I read.)
The Luminous Dead has been described as a sci-fi horror story. Is that how you see it?
I see it as sci-fi horror, but also as a broken love story, and a coming of age story, and pure id-fic for me (I’m a sucker for a mysterious woman whispering in my ear and being questionably cruel). It’s something I wrote purely for myself, sure it could never sell.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Luminous Dead but not on anything else you’ve written?
Huh, that’s something I’ve never really thought about. Nothing comes to mind as the One Specific Thing, though you could make an argument that House Of Leaves and Annihilation gave me the confidence to go weird in the later parts of the book. (Nowhere near as weird as they go, mind you, but…some weird, for sure.)
And as I mentioned earlier, Dune was a definite influence. Enclosed suits with waste recycling properties, giant worms that make industry dangerous, extractive resource mining…
Also, nothing specific, but I love reading romance novels, and they can be a masterclass in how to write a plot that revolves around shifts (sometimes small, sometimes large) in the relationship between two people.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them influence The Luminous Dead in any way? You mentioned some games already, and that movie The Descent…
Portal and Portal 2, for sure. GLaDOS and Em have a few things in common, and that dynamic of a woman’s voice, claiming to be there to make sure things run smoothly but having alternative motives was obviously very formative.
(Funny story about The Descent, I didn’t watch it until after I’d finished everything but the copy edits on the book. I can see now why my editor had me take out the scary corpse monsters chasing Gyre through the caves — it would have been a wee bit too close, even unintentionally!)
And this is my last question about influences, even though that’s the thing writers love talking about the most. Along with being a “spreadsheet-wrangler,” your bio also says you have a degree in anthropology. How, if at all, did your anthropology degree influence either what you wrote in The Luminous Dead or how you wrote it?
Now this I can talk about forever. Anthropology is a great starting point for worldbuilding. My specific training was in “biological” anthropology, which used to be horrifically racist, but has since been reworked to focus on issues like group nutrition, foodways, public health access, responses to climate, etc. That also means learning how how economic inequality and exploitation have lots of knock on effects and constrain individual and community choices. Gyre’s colony world is not designed to be healthy or self-sustaining; it shares a lot in common with gold rush towns, and isn’t great for forming real communities that aren’t dependent on the company store. That leaves Gyre with a bad support system and the reason to make an arguably very bad decision in an attempt to leave. After all, if there’s no better option, of course she’ll surgically rearrange her gut in order to get on a dangerous mission.
Or, perhaps more importantly, if Gyre doesn’t think there’s another option, she’ll do all of that.
I intentionally wrote a non-omniscient narrator, because Gyre doesn’t have a top down view of her world; what we learn about her world is through Gyre’s biases, which leads directly into her choices or actions. Gyre’s assumptions about her world may or may not be correct, but we can’t know that — we can only know the outcome of the actions she chooses to take.
As you know, some sci-fi stories are self-contained, and others are parts of larger sagas. What is The Luminous Dead?
Stand-alone! It was intended that way (although back in the monster-version days, I did have a plan for a sequel if one was requested). I don’t naturally think in series length or structure. I don’t start with creating a world, or even characters, but a scenario. So for a sequel, I’d need a new scenario, and one didn’t present itself to me as far as Gyre and Em’s story was concerned. Gyre and Em’s story reaches a resolution for the reader, even if we understand that there’s a whole mess to be worked through (hopefully in responsible therapy) after the book ends.
Now, along with The Luminous Dead, your website says you have two other books in the works: The Calculus Of Grief and Yellow Jessamine, both of which are horror stories. What are they about and when might they be out?
Neither have found a home with a publisher yet (but we’re working on it!), so I can’t go into a lot of detail, but I love talking about both. They’re both more traditional gothic horror, and in some ways are as far as you can get from The Luminous Dead, but they’re still stories with limited casts and constraining settings, soaked in a cocktail of grief and terror (a.k.a., the Caitlin Starling special).
The Calculus of Grief is novel-length, and is about a young woman who makes a business deal with a mysterious doctor to be his wife in name only, in order to spare her guardians the expense of keeping her as a spinster her whole life. His only rule is that she never visit his ancestral home, which he returns to every night. Of course, then they fall in love, and a series of mishaps brings Jane to his doorstep late one night…and she learns that her new husband and his house have secrets galore. There’s occult magic, mathematical theory, terrifying 1800s surgical procedures, and ghosts everywhere. I love it to pieces, and can’t wait to share it with everybody.
Yellow Jessamine is novella-length, and is more of a tragedy. The main character of Yellow Jessamine was orphaned as a young woman and now lives in a creepy house on the hill with her staff and an expansive garden. She’s trying to keep her life together as her country falls apart. She’s paranoid and in control of absolutely everything around her, but soon bewitched people from her past arrive, obsessed with her and bringing suspicion down on her head.
Earlier I asked if The Luminous Dead had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
It sure would make a great movie, wouldn’t it?
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as Gyre and the other main characters?
My dream Gyre (for film or game) would be [Thor Ragnarok‘s] Tessa Thompson, hands down. She’s got the range, the grit, the vulnerability, the physical presence. As for Em, I don’t have as strong of an opinion, but can you imagine Janelle Monáe [Hidden Figures] in that role? I can, and it’s amazing.
I’ve also given a little thought to The Luminous Dead as a video game, and I can’t decide if I’d want there to be more a physical threat present (and therefore be similar to Alien: Isolation or Prey), or have it more be a trippy, moody resource management game (a la Firewatch). I don’t think the latter could sustain a long play time.
Finally, if someone likes The Luminous Dead, what scary sci-fi novel of someone else’s should they read next and why that?
Check out The Last Astronaut by David Wellington, especially if you enjoyed the mind-screw effects of light deprivation, and wanted the cave to be even weirder!