Mark Allan Gunnells' 'Haunted Places and Other Stories' Is Unusually Strong Short Fiction Collection

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While grand Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Stoker’s classic Dracula were benchmarks of early horror, beginning with the days of Poe and Hawthorne and carrying through to the pulp-era of the twentieth century, the genre’s most innovative works lay indisputably within the realm of the short story. Indeed, acerbic American critic Amborse Bierce, himself an acknowledged master of the weird tale, defined novels in his satirical 1906 tome The Devil’s Dictionary as ‘...A short story, padded.’ One individual’s opinion, perhaps, but short form fiction provides a quick hit of adrenaline in a way that longer works cannot; plots, characters and atmosphere here are reduced to their most chilling, primal state, like a ghost story told ‘round the campfire.

One creator who understands the inherent power of short stories is South Carolina native and queer author Mark Allan Gunnells. Having established his name as a provocateur of horror with novels like 324 Abercorn, Before He Wakes, and Lucid, he returns with the Slashic Press collection Haunted Places and Other Stories, twenty masterful tales exploring that shadowy ground between life, love, and death.

The brief titular opener, ‘Haunted Places’, sets the mood with a man experiencing a most unusual case of possession. The body horror continues in ‘O Little Town’, where couple Kevin and Mike have a quiet Christmas Eve interrupted by their pregnant neighbor Peggy and become unwilling participants in the birth of a monstrous entity. For bibliophiles frustrated at society’s declining readership there’s ‘The Book Hunter’, which detail the exploits of a serial killer whose idea of vetting a victim means checking their bookshelves. The flash fiction piece ‘Moonville’ shows us how werewolves really find each other.

Hidden truths form the backbone of the next few entries: College student Alicia discovers ‘The Toll’ unfortunate souls must pay at an isolated train platform in order to attain safe passage. And after atheist David finds a strange bottle on the beach with ‘Messages’ written inside, he learns a god may exist after all. ‘The Boy in the Pond’ focuses on Hudson, a hard-boiled paranormal investigator-for-hire, who’s called in on a case involving a child’s spirit that continues to haunt his family, only to learn the real threat comes not from the dead, but the living. Hudson returns in ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’, where he’s asked by a woman to exorcise the lingering spirit of her brother’s deceased lover, the only problem being her sibling doesn’t want the ghost to leave.

The compilation’s second half starts with the yuletide suspense story ‘Santa’s Little Spy’; Paul is dead, but does his spirit somehow occupy the elf doll sitting on the mantle? His wife Carol thinks the notion is absurd, but when her daughter begins treating the toy like it’s her dear, departed dad, it reveals some unsettling secrets. A clever twist leads to an unforeseen reversal in the vampiric ‘Meat Market’, while the flash fiction entry ‘Natural Selection’ tugs at the nostalgic heartstrings as a man revisits his ruined former home in a post-apocalyptic world. When a crew of ghost chasers set their sights on investigating the ‘Haunting At Stump Lake’, one of them gets more than he bargained for once he starts seeing through the eyes of a drowned child. Told mainly through text messages, the disquieting ‘Unknown Number’ has Ethan engaging in a running cat-and-mouse dialogue with an unseen madman while waiting for his boyfriend at a local coffee shop. After Bobby hears of a new viral Bloody Mary-style internet challenge called ‘The Elevator Game’, he’s intent on playing it, never thinking the reality-altering consequences could be real...or fatal. And the endearing volume closer ‘I Just Worry’ showcases the budding relationship between adventurous teen Gregg and his anxiety-prone friend Zeke as they attempt to sneak into a drive-in, only to find themselves hounded by a werewolf.

With his novels, Gunnells has proven himself an unrivaled master at fostering dread, and that talent carries through in Haunted Places. The prose is scalpel-sharp, speedy, intense, brimming with a judicious irony fondly reminiscent of the classic television show The Twilight Zone, and like Rod Serling’s miniature morality tales, Gunnells excels at upending expectations. There are no perfect people in these stories, no simplistic black-and-white answers or hero-and-villain identities; catharsis here is not found in maintaining some idealized status quo. There are only ordinary men and women with realistic faults striving to do their best in outlandish situations, and often what appears to be their surface motivations are in due time revealed as exactly the opposite. This extends even to the antagonists: the true enemies of Haunted Places aren’t standard-issue stock horror boogeymen, rather our own flawed misdeeds and, more than anything, a lack of empathy for others.

Though each entry in the collection has merit, five stories stand out from the rest for their inventiveness and affecting emotional depth. The quirky satire ‘Door To Door’ delivers dagger-like jabs at both organized religion and mindless consumerism when a cynical woman buys a custom-made package of spiritual beliefs from a traveling salesman. Unflinching in its cause-and-effect appraisal of bullying and serving as a stark commentary on America’s epidemic of mass gun violence, ‘Before And Aftermath’ chronicles the sad, disturbing, and ultimately tragic circumstances that transform a shy, awkward teen into a merciless school shooter.

For sheer desperation, little equals the heart-rending despair that leads a new mother struggling to bond with her infant son to the ‘End Of Her Rope’; this story’s simple power is that’s its horror has nothing to do with vampires, zombies or masked slashers, only the unpolished mirror of a true-to-life situation that’s all too terrifyingly common.

None of Gunnells’ stories invoke the off-kilter paranoia of The Twilight Zone better than the book’s penultimate tale, ‘The Pigmalion Pigs’; Joe is disappointed to learn that his favorite childhood book now has a new, misspelled title and a different ending when he buys a copy to read to his young daughter. Insistent that his memories aren’t wrong, he begins an obsessive quest that may involve spanning alternate realities and losing everything he holds dear to uncover the truth.

In the end, however, it’s impossible to top the crown jewel of Haunted Places, ‘Walk A Mile In Another Man’s Face’: When meek Adam and his high school tormentor Jimmy are coerced into literally trading faces by their principal as part of a program to allow each youth a greater understanding of the other, it unleashes an unpredictable role-reversal rife with betrayal, familial abuse, self-loathing and, ultimately, brutal revenge.

With superlative depth of character and heady narrative twists, there is undoubtedly something for every fear fan in Haunted Places and Other Stories. An unusually strong collection, I hereby grant it the full 5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. For a dark and stormy night there’s no better reading than this.

5.0 / 5.0