Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a horror novel. So, after searching through some of my piles of books, I found an old copy of S.D.Perry’s 1996 novel “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Although I really enjoyed Perry’s novelisations of the “Resident Evil” videogames when I was a teenager, I also had vague memories of enjoying a couple of “Aliens” novels back then too.
Since I initially wasn’t sure whether I’d already read this novel before (although about two-thirds of the way through, I realised that I had), I thought that I’d check it out.
So, let’s take (another) look at “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
“Aliens: The Labyrinth” tells a self-contained sci-fi horror/thriller story that is set in the universe of the “Alien” films. The story begins with a military scientist called Colonel Doctor Crespi awakening from suspended animation after a long space voyage.
Officially, he is being dropped off at a remote research station in order to help out with Dr.Church’s scientific research. However, he has been given secret orders to seize command of the station due to unspecified worries about what is happening there.
Of course, it doesn’t take Crespi long to realise that Dr.Church is not only performing cruel experiments involving xenomorphs (the bloodthirsty alien monsters from the “Alien” films) but that he actually seems to enjoy his work too….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like a hungry xenomorph, it really creeps up on you. Basically, this novel gets much better as it goes along. When I started reading it, I initially found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “I’d probably enjoy this book a lot more if I was fourteen” but, near the end of the novel, I found myself recoiling with horror – yet spurred on by adrenaline to read more. Seriously, this is one of those novels where first impressions aren’t everything.
As for the sci-fi elements of this story, they work reasonably well. Not only is this novel set in a sparsely-described, but convincingly futuristic, location – but it also uses the classic sci-fi technique of occasionally dropping futuristic terms into the narration in order to immerse the reader.
Plus, of course, it’s a story about science gone horribly awry. You don’t get more sci-fi than that. In addition to this, the scientific ethics-based elements of the story are also explored in an utterly chilling flashback scene where the xenomorphs are shown performing vaguely similar experiments on humans, for an arguably more sympathetic reason.
The novel’s thriller elements work fairly well too. Although the earlier parts of the novel are a fairly standard mystery thriller, with a few fairly “ordinary” action-thriller moments thrown in every now and then to keep things interesting, the story eventually builds to a grippingly intense, visceral, adrenaline-fuelled climax that is an example of the thriller genre at it’s very best. So, yes, it only has one really gripping action-thriller segment, but what a segment it is!
As for the horror elements in this story, they work astonishingly well. At first, the novel isn’t particularly scary. The earlier scenes involving the xenomorphs seem to be gloriously cheesy in the way that you’d expect a silly monster movie involving a megalomaniacal scientist to be. But, as the novel progresses, other types of horror start to appear and you suddenly realise that the earlier scenes were there to lull you into a false sense of security!
Seriously, I was genuinely creeped out and grossed out by parts of this book. This is because it doesn’t just rely on silly monster-based scares and splatterpunk-esque gory horror, it also includes things like body horror, emotional horror, scientific horror, character-based horror, taboo-based horror, bleak nihilism and other such things. Seriously, it’s been years since a horror novel has made me literally recoil with horror.
All of this horror is also balanced out by some absolutely brilliant moments of dark comedy, mostly revolving around Dr. Church’s eccentricities. Seriously, this novel is worth reading just to read the scene where Church decides to take one of his pet xenomorphs for a stroll through the station’s corridors whilst humming a jaunty tune.
The narration in this novel is kind of interesting. Initially, I thought that the rather informal third-person narration was somewhat “shallow” and eye-rollingly immature (seriously, the narration uses a lot of four-letter words). But, as the story progressed, the narrative style began to make a lot more sense. Once the novel reaches it’s adrenaline-pumping climax, the informal narration really helps to ramp up the intensity a lot. Seriously, if the later parts of this book were narrated in a more traditional formal way, they wouldn’t have half the impact that they do. So, yes, the slightly informal narrative style works – although it takes a little bit of getting used to.
Best of all, at just 210 pages, this novel is efficient. There is barely a wasted moment in this novel and this really helps to keep the story flowing at a decent pace. Combined with the informal narration, this means that this novel is as enjoyable to read as watching a good sci-fi horror movie is. This book is reassuringly short easy reading that will make you feel decidedly uneasy.
The novel’s main characters are surprisingly well-written. Although they all initially seem to be two-dimensional stock characters who all have tragic backstories, they become more complex and compelling characters as the story goes on. Like with a lot of things about this book, the characters get better and more sophisticated as the story progresses. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that can make a background character into the main character in one part of the story and make that part of the story infinitely more dramatic and gripping as a result.
In terms of how this 23 year old novel has aged, it has aged ridiculously well. Seriously, if this novel was published for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that it was actually from 1996. It’s timeless.
All in all, this is a novel that will really catch you by surprise. Yes, it initially seems like a story that is about as scary as a kitten, written for immature audiences and populated by cardboard characters. But, this is all there to lull you – experienced horror novel reader- into a false sense of security. If you stick with this book, then you’ll find that it’s a lot scarier, a lot more gripping and a bit more sophisticated than you initially thought!
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.