Book Club Prep: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Our next book club book will be The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling! Colleen and I had the tremendous pleasure of reading this book in July of 2020, followed by the slightly-less-great-pleasure of a socially distanced discussion on a spotty Zoom connection. (Sometimes making book club work requires some suffering.)

The Luminous Dead is a delightfully claustrophobic novel, limited to just two characters and one setting. Typically, I would fear such a set-up becoming stagnant and repetitive—but Starling uses revelations of information and progressive shifts in the dynamic between her two main characters to keep things fresh. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for an example of sci-fi horror or if you want something I’d describe as “sci-fi lite.”

Discussion questions will post on June 16th!

When Gyre Price lied her way into this expedition, she thought she’d be mapping mineral deposits, and that her biggest problems would be cave collapses and gear malfunctions. She also thought that the fat paycheck—enough to get her off-planet and on the trail of her mother—meant she’d get a skilled surface team, monitoring her suit and environment, keeping her safe. Keeping her sane.

Instead, she got Em.

Em sees nothing wrong with controlling Gyre’s body with drugs or withholding critical information to “ensure the smooth operation” of her expedition. Em knows all about Gyre’s falsified credentials, and has no qualms using them as a leash—and a lash. And Em has secrets, too . . .

As Gyre descends, little inconsistencies—missing supplies, unexpected changes in the route, and, worst of all, shifts in Em’s motivations—drive her out of her depths. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds her sense of control giving way to paranoia and anger. On her own in this mysterious, deadly place, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, Gyre must overcome more than just the dangerous terrain and the Tunneler which calls underground its home if she wants to make it out alive—she must confront the ghosts in her own head.

But how come she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed?

Highlight white text for content warnings: gaslighting, assault, death or dying, mental illness, bathophobia (fear of depths), claustrophobia

For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing The Luminous Dead. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some books and other media which either tie into Starling’s novel or expand upon its themes and content.

Snacks & Drinks

There’s not much in the way of book-themed snacks on offer when the only food is nutrient-rich sludge and the only beverage is water. However, you can still try and get in the swing of things by providing caving-appropriate snacks—food that will still be calorie-packed and unharmed even after hours of being dragged through crawls, sumps, ducks, and whatever else a cave might throw at you. (For the sake of everyone’s tastebuds, let’s assume your pack is waterproof.)

Chocolate Bars

According to a few caving-related online forums I browsed, a Snickers bar makes a popular choice—but the choices are, of course, infinite.

Trail Mix

If you’re making your own, you can do the easy original (Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts) or raise the bar with some fancier ingredients (dried fruit, seeds, candied ginger, fancier nuts, granola, etc.). Most grocery stores will also have plenty of pre-made selections for you to pick from.

Apples with Nut Butter / Veggies with Hummus

If you and your book club were doing the same exhausting cave explorations as Gyre, apple slices and carrot sticks would make for tasty and convenient protein delivery methods—or more elegant ones, anyway, than hoovering peanut butter straight out of the jar. Fortunately, these snacks still taste pretty good even when you haven’t been putting your body through the wringer.

Salami or Vegan Alternatives

Many cavers who eat meat will take salami with them as an easy source of protein, so this is an easily adaptable snack for your book club—especially if you want to gussy it up and turn it into a cheeseboard affair with the addition of a few cheeses, crackers or bread, and jam or mustard. For vegetarians and vegans, you can swap out the meat salami for vegan salami (they do exist) or just fry up some vegan sausages (which are easier to find).

Nonalcoholic Beers

Did you know that nonalcoholic beer is considered a “reasonable recovery drink” for exercise, on par with sports drinks? As someone whose chronic migraines are often triggered or worsened by alcohol, I’ve really appreciated the recent rise in nonalcoholic celebratory beverages, at least where I live. If you haven’t tried NA beers before, you might give them a shot—my favorite brands include Athletic Brewing, Samuel Adams, and Cruz Fermentation Project.

Further Context

Fear of Depths by Jacob Geller

This video from Geller unpacks why “it seems like everything about a cave is built to mess with how we usually take in the world” through actual caving footage and anecdotes, as well as illustrative examples from video games and literature.

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt

I have not read this memoir, but it seems like an interesting look at underground spaces from around the world: When Will Hunt was sixteen years old, he discovered an abandoned tunnel that ran beneath his house in Providence, Rhode Island. His first tunnel trips inspired a lifelong fascination with exploring underground worlds, from the derelict subway stations and sewers of New York City to sacred caves, catacombs, tombs, bunkers, and ancient underground cities in more than twenty countries around the world. Underground is both a personal exploration of Hunt’s obsession and a panoramic study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted us through the ages.

We Considered Ourselves to Be a Powerful Culture by Aisling McCrea

McCrea’s excellent article explores the US Department of Energy’s attempts to create a warning for buried nuclear waste that would still be comprehensible to civilizations in 10,000 years’ time. Detours into topics like Egyptomania, Romantic poetry, and Native American land claims elegantly tease out deeper themes of greed for power without thought for consequence, every civilization’s inevitable end, and our general inability to predict the longterm future—as well as, it seems, to communicate with the people who will reside there.

Control, Anatomy, and the Legacy of the Haunted House by Jacob Geller

This video from Geller pulls together four different pieces of media—the video games Control and Anatomy and the novels The Haunting of Hill House and House of Leaves—to examine a very specific type of haunted house: a house which has itself gone wrong. Geller explores how these places, hostile and vicious as they often are, also seem to call to us, beckoning us deeper in.

The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix or on DVD from your library

I feel like most people have heard of this show by now, even if they haven’t actually watched it, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t recommend it as a companion piece to The Luminous Dead in terms of its “this place is alive and trying to eat you” vibe. Based on Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel of the same name (also recommended!), this miniseries does a great job throughout of slowly building atmospheric dread and a sense of wrongness. I also love the ways in which the show focuses so much on the small, everyday horrors in its characters’ lives, not just the supernatural scares—which in turn leads to rich character development and complex relationships among the Crain family members. (Note: This show is pretty scary if you are not an experienced horror viewer, so gauge your own terror tolerance accordingly.)

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