Caitlin Starling: Five Things I Learned Writing The Luminous Dead

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?

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Caves are terrifying!

I can count the number of caves I have physically been in on one hand. I’m a control freak and an indoor cat; while I enjoy rock climbing, I vastly prefer it in a climate-controlled, well-monitored gym. A dark, wet, cold cavern with uneven footing is a hard no for me.

And that was before I started doing the research.

According to some accounts, cavers on long expeditions lose up to a pound and a half of body weight per day. Per day! And then there’s The Rapture. Being away from sunlight and restricting use of your battery-powered light to active climbing time has serious psychological impacts. Your circadian rhythms are fucked and in the absence of light, the brain starts creating its own visual stimulation. It’s commonly held that everybody, after a certain point, will go through The Rapture, the mother of all panic attacks, anxiety turned up to eleven.

And then there’s everything else that can go wrong (injuries, illness, death…), and how hard it is to get your body out of that cave. Break your arm so that you can’t climb out on your own? Expect to be in there for at least a few days, if not weeks, while your companions (you have those, right? Right?) climb out to get help, then come back down and rig up a way to get you to safety.

But caves are also magical. They’re beautiful, powerful, and intrinsically fascinating to many. They’re the underworld. They’re tombs. They’re passages to a far-away land. They have seasons just like the surface does, but they look, feel, taste different. They have a respiratory system and change and grow over time. And for those of us brave enough to challenge them, they represent some of the last unexplored corners of the planet.

In other words, caves are perfect for a story.

Restriction begets creativity

Caves are intrinsically well suited to stories of terror, what with the built-in isolation and physical danger. Movies like The Descent use both to push characters to extremes, heightening interpersonal dynamics, encouraging teams to break down.

But in The Luminous Dead, Gyre is physically on her own in that cave, so there were limitations on what I could do to her. I don’t have a large cast I can kill off or maim horribly. I can play the can you trust your team card with her handler, Em, but with just two characters, I can’t rely on alliances and subsequent betrayals to keep the landscape ever-changing. I have fewer of the traditional tools available to ratchet up the tension.

So I turned to other, subtler restrictions for Gyre and, therefore, myself. Visible light is potentially dangerous in the cave, which leaves Gyre using a sonar-based reconstruction. That means there are no colors. Her suit seals her off from her surroundings, so there goes smell and some forms of touch. That makes it harder to describe a real-feeling setting for the reader, but it also means I can explore the impact on Gyre of not having those senses available to her for weeks at a time.

And what happens if one of her computer-simulated senses makes different interpretations of the world around her than her brain would have on its own?

Lay out the rules like an elaborate domino design, and then watch them fall as the plot lurches into motion.

There are lots of ways to poop

Speaking of restrictions, spending a month sealed inside an armored suit in order to minimize any heat or other bodily inputs into the cave has some interesting side effects. Feeding tubes, catheters, all gross but all sensible.

But what about pooping?

In my early drafts, I handwaved the issue, but something about the handwave was deeply unsettling. She produced waste canisters. But from where? How did that work? Was there a literal chute—

Yeah, no. That would be uncomfortable.

The answer came from a family member being diagnosed with colon cancer. This led to a lot of research on my part, totally unrelated to the book, about what treatment would likely look like. And that’s where I learned about reversible colostomies. Turns out that’s a thing! Current medicine can reroute your bowel to a port on your stomach, and then reverse it once the need for it is gone– or they can leave it in place indefinitely, if necessary. They can also make internal colostomies that you manually flush at intervals, instead of the traditional bag on the outside.

That meant, first, that I could have a much more elegant solution (the food canisters that plug into Gyre’s side for access to the feeding tube could double as waste canisters), and second, it is, thanks to its specificity, far grosser and prone to specific complications during the course of the book.

I am 100% still afraid of the dark

I get a lot of people telling me that they would love to read The Luminous Dead, but are too afraid to. And I get it! I, personally, am a complete wimp when it comes to horror movies. I have an anxiety disorder, and sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m convinced there’s an ax murderer hiding in my closet. I am twenty-eight years old and still literally afraid of the dark.

But being so (ahem) in touch with my fear makes it easier for me to channel that terror onto the page in order to scare those of you who can stomach it. I know a hundred variations of panic. I know what it feels like, how it screws with decision making, and how unpredictable rhythms of fear are so much worse (read: more interesting) than constant terror.

Sorry about the lost sleep, though.

Write the book you want to write

When I started The Luminous Dead, I didn’t think it would ever sell.

When I queried The Luminous Dead, I didn’t think it would ever sell.

When we went on submission, I didn’t think it would ever sell.

The Luminous Dead was a book I wrote because I had a few ideas while otherwise in a writing slump. I wanted to prove to myself that I could write and finish an original novel, and it wasn’t until I’d typed The End on the first draft and sat there going oh no, it’s good that I considered that other people might read it. It’s a messy, twisty book, and it’s about two women who hate and love one another– something that I assumed had limited appeal and, moreover, something that I wasn’t sure I was good enough to say anything about.

But while I was shocked to learn that I was wrong about both those things, I never once thought that I shouldn’t try as hard as I could with my funky little draft. My fears didn’t mean I shouldn’t write it, or revise it, or query it. At each step, I had a moment where I realized I owed it to myself to see just how far Gyre and Em could go.

And now the book is out in the world, and while I’m terrified nobody will read it (the fear never entirely goes away, it just becomes a familiar companion), I can say confidently that I did them proud.

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Bio: Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, comes out from HarperVoyager on April 2, 2019. It tells the story of a caver on a foreign planet who finds herself trapped, with only her wits and the unreliable voice on her radio to help her back to the surface. Caitlin also dabbles in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and is always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia. Find more of her work at and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.

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