When you think about it, space is a lot more terrifying than we give it credit for. There are billions of ways to die in the empty void, planets are usually nigh-uninhabitable, and even if there are aliens out there, the chance that they’re friendly is about as slim as the chance that we’ll find them alive. And yet, science fiction is, for the most part, incredibly optimistic.
While it’s true that movies like Alien have played science fiction (and indeed cyberpunk, since it predates Neuromancer by several years) for horror, it can be a little harder if you’re in the mood for sci-fi scares and need a good book to pick up. While Nightfire does have you covered with our own sci-fi/horror offering Dead Silence, 2022 is still a year away and we understand you might need to fill that time. With that in mind, here are six scarier stories set in traditionally science-fictional settings, from research labs to the furthest reaches of space and all places in between.
Blindsight, Peter Watts
If you’ve ever looked at science fiction and wondered why all these technological advancements and alien races are portrayed a trifle too optimistically, then Blindsight is the book for you. Set in a future where humans have taken transhumanism a bit too far and narrated mainly by a man who had half of his brain removed to “cure” his epilepsy, Blindsight follows the crew of the Theseus as they investigate a strange object in deep space.
The premise of a world where humanity is rapidly chasing any and every possible “improvement” and the cast of maladaptive characters sent into space seemingly because they frighten the hell out of everyone else on Earth is horrifying enough, but when Blindsight really gets going, it turns into a frightening first-contact story where the aliens and the humans terrify each other to the point that they brutalize the other side in desperate self-defense. Add to this Watts’s knack for some chillingly detached dialogue (“This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence: you hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can distinguish the speech from the screams”) and an entire universe of unnerving implications, and it soon becomes obvious why Blindsight deserves its place as a cosmic-horror classic.
Salvation Day, Kali Wallace
Wallace’s taut thriller begins like Die Hard in orbit, with several young terrorists from a religious cult hijacking a mission to a derelict generation ship so they can bring it online and take their entire “family” out further into space. But once the crew reaches the ship, the site of a brutal massacre that left the entire craft derelict, it swings into full haunted-house territory as the terrorists and their now-rogue hostages realize that there might still be something living within.
Wallace slowly ups the dread as the novel builds, beginning with the discovery of the bodies onboard the ship and ending with a life-or-death struggle that has to be read to be believed. The result is a taut horror-thriller that unfolds with its mysteries gradually, but punches hard when it does, never once flagging or letting up until the final moments.
Frozen Hell, John W. Campbell
Many of you have no doubt heard of “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell, the landmark story that was made into two separate science fiction classics under the title of The Thing. What many of you don’t know is that it was originally a somewhat longer novel called Frozen Hell. This edition, released in 2019, contains the unabridged version of Frozen Hell, complete with the initial 45-page prologue.
For those not familiar, Frozen Hell is the story of researchers at an arctic facility known as “Big Magnet” for its closeness to the South Pole. On an expedition, they find a crashed spaceship and a blue-furred three-eyed creature frozen in the ice. They tote the alien, nicknamed “The Thing,” back to base, where the ice thaws and suddenly the men of Big Magnet find themselves in a battle for their lives against the mysterious creature and each other as the Thing slowly assimilates the researchers one by one.
Campbell definitely had a way with atmosphere, with Frozen Hell taking a slow descent from straight science fiction into horror in a methodical way, and the story still has power in either form, with the extra pages making them distinct enough to be two separate entities. The longer version also fleshes out some of the fates of the cast that were glossed over in “Who Goes There?,” making things slightly more complete.
Slimer, Harry Adam Knight
A nasty piece of work from the early 1980s, Slimer begins with six lowlifes finding a seemingly-abandoned oil rig full of odd piles of clothes. This is their first clue that the rig, a front for a secret research lab, isn’t as abandoned as they think. Their second hint comes when a security officer transforms into a terrifying mutant creature known as “Charlie,” a shapeshifting predator created from a great white shark and a compound known as “Phoenix.”
Knight does a good job with balancing both the protagonists and the creatures just the right side of horrible while still being sympathetic enough to care about, and there’s a certain amount of dark humor to the book, both in the way Charlie prefers to play with his food and in the monster’s ultimate weakness, which turns out to be something gruesomely hilarious in its own weird way.
But as a warning for those who haven’t encountered Knight’s better-known novels (The Fungus and Carnosaur, the latter adapted into a Roger Corman killer dino picture), the book is very 1980s horror-sleaze and comes with some serious content warnings for rape, misogyny, drug use, and some rather sickening kills. But should you still be willing to brave its retro vibes, Slimer is a pretty good B-movie in book form (it was even adapted into Proteus, a cult sci-fi flick) with just enough squirm-inducing content to make horror fans nervous.
Salvaged, Madeleine Roux
Rosalyn Devar, once a promising biologist and the scion of a wealthy industrial family, now works as part of a deep-space crew specializing in salvage and trauma cleaning. It’s a way to keep from dealing with her myriad problems and traumatic past on Earth, even if the job does drive her to drink and involve vacuuming up human and animal remains.
After a bout of drinking on the job almost gets her fired, management gives her one last chance: A ship’s gone silent about six days out, and the Merchantia Corporation would really like to know why their ships keep getting turned into reddish-brown glop. What should have been an easy salvage and information job soon turns into a nightmare as Devar and a barely-holding-it-together crewmember of the supposedly dead ship have to find some way to hold off the infection and escape with their lives.
Roux knows how to put together a good horror story, and has some fun with the tropes, giving Devar a reason to stay when there’s a possibility to leave at the beginning of the story, and letting her annoying coworker go on and on about his family just to set up what will happen later on. It’s an excellent story in the tradition of Alien, with plenty of body horror to go around, and an interesting twist where at least one of the infecteds is actively fighting the infection.
Coil, Ren Warom
Beginning with a passage about the city mortuary that contains the words “spiral corpse,” Warom (Escapology) sets up the cyberpunk premise of an elderly mortician and a detective investigating a gruesome set of serial murders, and then reveals more and more of the world as Bone and Stark begin their hunt for the likely candidate, a sewer-dwelling cyborg named Burneo. But their hunt through the sewers leads them into darker and darker territory, from body horror to mad science to further murders, all of which somehow leads back to Bone.
From the start, it’s clear Warom’s headed to the darker side of noir–her characters spit dialogue like the best passages of Ellroy and the murder tableaux only get more gruesome the more the killer’s allowed to operate–but she goes for it with aplomb and ruthlessness, playing the cybernetic and genetic modifications for full body horror and revealing exactly how cold and nasty the world of the Spires is. If you’re a fan of cyberpunk who always wanted something a little nastier, or simply a crime-thriller fan looking to get more into sci-fi, either way, there’s a lot to love here.