The Earth is dying. Pollution chokes the planet, forcing its inhabitants to live inside protective domes. But several colony ships have been launched into space, in the hope of colonising a new planet so that the human race can survive. But as the ship heads toward its’ final destination, something gets inside. Something that puts all the lives on board in severe, deadly danger…
Sam Stone’s novella, The Darkness Within, published in January, is a fast-paced action-sci-fi-horror story set aboard the colony ark ship Freedom, which is taking a host of colonists and crew-members to a brave new world when disaster strikes. For such a short piece, it packs a hell of a lot into the 180 pages – racing along with the frenzy of a rabid creature. A rather apt metaphor, actually.
But before we get to the flesh-eating rotters that invade and attack the unsuspecting crew, let’s start at the beginning. Very cleverly, Sam Stone creates an atmosphere of chilling melancholy before we even reach the ‘darkness within’. The colony ship Freedom is heading to a new world so that its passengers can start a new life on a healthy planet. Everybody knows the earth is a cesspit of smog and fumes, and these carefully chosen colonists have been given a way out. But what most of them don’t know is that, actually, the earth has only about 30 years left before the sun that keeps it warm goes supernova. Everybody assumes that their loved ones back home will carry on living, maybe even one day leaving the earth themselves. Not so. The earth is doomed. This casts a gloomy shadow over the rest of the story, an excellent back-drop that doesn’t really add much to the plot, but gives an extra dimension of gritty realism to the piece. And when the main character, Madison Whitehawk, learns this fact, it gives her an extra incentive to survive, whatever the cost. There’s no going back.
Whitehawk is the centre of The Darkness Within. She’s a real character: A feisty, intelligent woman who can kick ass when she needs to, but she also has real emotions and weaknesses. She isn’t a cardboard cut-out, not at all. When the man she is slowly falling in love with comes to her aid later in the novella, Whitehawk is happy to show him how relieved she is at seeing him, how he makes her feel safe. It’s a tiny moment, but it adds so much.
That sums up the core of this story: The science-fiction elements are just background. This is a piece about people. About their interactions, their flaws, their strengths. At such a short length, Stone has to bring these characters to life as much as she can in as short a space as possible, and it works. Although Whitehawk is the main character, Stone incorporates a sort of ‘pass-the-baton’ style, whereby we follow the perspective of one character, but then that character meets another, and shifts over to them, changing the point of view to somebody else. It’s a tricky thing to achieve, but Sam Stone pulls it off effortlessly, meaning we can hop into a different viewpoint straight away, and carry the story forward. It would have been nice to have had more time to get to know the characters, their backgrounds and histories, but we know enough to care.
And it’s important to care about characters when they’re up against something so grotesque. The big selling point of The Darkness Within is ZOMBIES ON A SPACESHIP! And that is pretty much what you get here, but with a difference. It’s safe to say that zombies are ‘in vogue’ at the moment, but far from resting on her laurels, Stone has taken this particular nasty and put her own spin on it. There are a few moments of traditional zombie action, including Whitehawk’s first encounter with a zombified crew-mate (I won’t say who, no spoilers here!), in which she dispatches it in a truly nasty fashion worthy of The Walking Dead. But Stone’s ‘zombies’ are just a side-effect of something much more bizarre and disturbing, made all the more so by some genuinely grotesque passages, in which the author describes people spewing maggots in the most gleefully vulgar way possible. The unpredictability of the menace also has the reader constantly on edge, as you start to realise that nobody on board the ship is safe…
The concept of what is attacking and converting the crew has been done to death in science-fiction, but Stone attacks it from a different angle, not just in the gory prose, but in the underlying themes too. At it’s heart, like all the best horror and sci-fi, The Darkness Within is about humanity, and freedom. There are themes here of pairing, of being with who you want to be with, and having a choice. Some of the values of the higher-ups on the ship aren’t all that different from the creatures that invade, and some of the most unnerving scenes in the book come from perfectly ordinary people who are just following their own set of values. It’s about control, love versus lust, and of giving up your individuality or fighting for it, and what makes the novella so successful is that it doesn’t force these ideas down your throat. They’re there if you want them, and if you don’t, then you can just enjoy the sheer horror of it all.
The Darkness Within invokes the prose of Richard Laymon and early James Herbert in its vivid moments of body horror and the lightning-fast-pace, but it’s Sam Stone’s voice that speaks loudest of all. Her unique approach allows her to wear her influences on her sleeve, without compromising her own incomparable style.
It’s a perfect combination of horror and science-fiction that pays homage to the old masters, but at the same time points a gnarled finger toward the future. Sam Stone is leading us into a new golden age of horror fiction, and if you want something that will chill you, excite you, terrify you, and make you squirm with unease, then The Darkness Within is everything you could wish for. The only problem is, once you finish it, much like the shuffling undead, you’re left craving for more…
Purchase The Darkness Within here: http://www.telos.co.uk/searchResultItem.php?id=153