Book Club Nominees

6 Terrifying Treks BACK into the Cosmos

by Emily Hughes, curator of HOWLS Book Club nominees for June’s “Space: The Mind-Fuck Frontier” category

Regardless of what you might have heard on Twitter, space horror is alive, well, and very real.

After all, what’s more horrifying than space? It’s an endless silent void at the razor-thin edge of what a human body can survive, where the unbearable weight of isolation crushes the psyche. All that stands between you and certain death is delicate machinery made by all-too-fallible humans. If you encounter a planet or a moon, chances are something even more dangerous–more alien–waits for you.

I find myself most drawn to stories about the psychological mindfuck of venturing out into the cold black and encountering something beyond comprehension, something that doesn’t care about you, or doesn’t even notice you. Call it putting the “cosmic” back in “cosmic horror.”

Cover of Space: The Mind-Fuck Frontier. Cover shows a figure in a red snowsuit walking through an almost entirely white and featureless landscape; the only feature is the figure's footprints. The landscape is a bit blurry but it appears to be snowing.

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind… (from the publisher’s website)

This book blew me away. It’s a perfectly balanced cocktail of a handful of different genres and tropes–science fiction, murder mystery, police procedural, multiple realities, impending apocalypse, space and time travel, cosmic horror–and it grabs you from the first paragraph. The horror here is exceptionally well done, with scenes of body horror that would make Clive Barker proud and tentacle-free existential horror that still haunts my dreams.

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Cover of Salvaged by Madeleine Roux. Cover shows a black woman's head. She is in a position as if she is lying down. Behind her is a background that appears to be space, filled with stars. Surrounding her head are rings, such as the rings surrounding a planet.

Salvaged by Madeleine Roux

Rosalyn Devar is on the run from her famous family, the bioengineering job she’s come to hate, and her messed-up life. She’s run all the way to outer space, where she’s taken a position as a “space janitor,” cleaning up ill-fated research expeditions. But no matter how far she goes, Rosalyn can’t escape herself. After too many mistakes on the job, she’s given one last chance: take care of salvaging the Brigantine, a research vessel that has gone dark, with all crew aboard thought dead. But the Brigantine’s crew are very much alive–if not entirely human. Now Rosalyn is trapped on board, alone with a crew infected by a mysterious parasitic alien. Rosalyn must find a way to stop the parasite’s onslaught…or it may take over the entire human race. (from the publisher’s website)

Fungus-based horror stories aren’t uncommon these days (just look at Mexican Gothic), but you don’t often find them set off-world. Salvaged features a sentient fungal hivemind named Foxfire that’s taken over most of the crew of a ship once thought lost, and the traumatized salvager who thought she was just going to have to clean up a few corpses, but is now stuck in the unenviable position of trying to prevent Foxfire from running rampant through the rest of humankind.

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Cover of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Cover shows a creature in some sort of armor or exoskeleton with a myriad of spikes and spines. The creature is watching a ship sail in. A sunset and what appears to be some sort of strange palm tree are visible in the background.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

A stunning tour de force filled with transcendent awe and wonder, Hyperion is a masterwork of science fiction that resonates with excitement and invention, the first volume in a remarkable epic by the multiple-award-winning author of The Hollow Man. (from the publisher’s website)

Simmons’ 1989 novel is a masterpiece. It’s structured after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a group of pilgrims on a journey sharing their stories, but the pilgrims in question are from planets scattered across the galaxy in the 29th century, and the pilgrimage is to a planet called Hyperion, where the Time Tombs move backwards in time and are stalked by the Shrike, a deadly creature of immense power. The Shrike is an all-time great (if underappreciated) horror character, but the novel’s first part (“The Priest’s Tale”) is a standout for horror lovers–it features a parasite known as a cruciform, and that’s all I’ll say…

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Cover of We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen. Cover shows giant pillars of jagged rock, presumably on a the surface of a distant planet. In the sky is a large moon.

We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen

This psychological sci-fi thriller from a debut author follows one doctor who must discover the source of her crew’s madness… or risk succumbing to it herself.

This book is another interesting blend of genres and tropes: psychological thriller, corporate malfeasance, robots-as-metaphor-for-what-it-means-to-be-human, haunted houses, planetary apocalypse, space colonization, slippery reality, and more. Our misanthropic protagonist vastly prefers the company of the AIs and robots on her ship, but when both they and her human crewmates start acting erratically, it becomes clear very quickly that something is very, very wrong here.

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Cover of The Echo by James Smythe. Cover shows two astronauts, untethered, floating through the black of space.

The Echo by James Smythe

The disappearance of the spaceship Ishiguro twenty-three years ago devastated the global space program and set back exploration for a generation. Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of twin brothers Mira and Tomas Hyvonen, the program has been resurrected. Spearheading a new age of human discovery, the brothers also hope to solve the mystery behind the Ishiguro’s disastrous mission. Mira and Tomas are determined to make their trip successful. They have arranged everything down to the smallest detail. Nothing has been overlooked. They don’t know that in space, the devil isn’t always in the details . . . and nothing goes according to plan. (from the publisher’s website)

I know it’s a bold choice to suggest the second book in a series for a reading group, but I read The Echo without having read its predecessor, The Explorer, and found it immensely satisfying and disturbing as a standalone. What unfolds when our protagonists’ expedition reaches the ill-fated Ishiguro, across a one-way barrier known as the Anomaly, can best be described as “Event Horizon meets Interstellar.” And I have to admit, I’m always a sucker for twins as a metaphor.

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Cover of Blindsight by Peter Watts. Cover shows a space ship hovering over a landscape full of jagged sticks that look like daggers. There are thin whispy clouds in the background and beyond that, a black sky.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

Two months since the stars fell. Two months of silence, while a world held its breath. Now some half-derelict space probe hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system. Whatever’s out there isn’t talking to us. So who do you send to force introductions with unknown and unknowable alien intellect that doesn’t wish to be met? You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won’t be needed. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist—an informational topologist with half his mind gone—as an interface between here and there. Pray they can be trusted with the fate of a world. They may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find. (from the publisher’s website)

I love a good “what does it mean to be human/alien” story, and Watts’ hard sci-fi novel delivers. A transhuman crew–all of whom are considered alien in some way back on Earth–are sent to attempt to communicate with an extraterrestrial intelligence, which calls itself Rorschach. The crew’s interactions with Rorschach delve deep into what consciousness means, whether intelligence is the same thing, and what really constitutes personhood. The horror here is largely existential, but don’t miss the space vampire.

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And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read Blindsight by Peter Watts. Join HOWL Society on Monday, 20th of June 2022 to begin discussion!

Emily Hughes wants to talk to you about scary books. As the site editor for, she’s dedicated to bringing the good word about horror to the masses. You can find her writing at, Electric Lit, Thrillist, and more. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds, she now writes an occasional newsletter about horror fiction and tweets bad puns @emilyhughes.

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