"Before He Wakes" Book Review

Written by Stuart D. Monroe

Published by Crystal Lake Publishing

before he wakes mark allan gunnells poster large

Written by Mark Allan Gunnells
2021, 189 pages, Fiction
Released on May 14th, 2021


When you’ve been reading, watching, and writing about horror for your entire life, it becomes increasingly difficult to experience the simple joy of being caught off guard and genuinely surprised. It just doesn’t happen that often. You’ve seen every scenario, mainlined every twist and turn in every conceivable kind of terror. The more attuned those particular senses get over time, the more you lust for someone to come along and kick you in the teeth with something that gets the formula right.

Mark Allan Gunnells (2B, 324 Abercorn) has done just that, and I offer my sincere thanks. I don’t have to tell you that there are few thrills greater, few impressions stronger than that crucial first read of an author. It’s truly a make or break. On a personal note, I was quite pleased that Gunnells set this story in the upstate of South Carolina where we are both from. I can see it, smell it, and hear it.

Patrick Young is living his best life. While out on his morning run around the lake, he’s attacked by a man in an SUV. When he wakes, he’s in a ten-by-ten concrete cell with a pair of buckets (one of which contains dog food while the other doesn’t contain anything yet). He also has a cellmate, of sorts, on the other side of the lone plaster wall – Clare Bennett, the missing teenager who’s been gone for months! The situation is much worse than they could ever imagine, but Patrick and Clare are about to discover what they’re made of as they keep a wary eye out for the return of Big Daddy. Meanwhile, their respective loved ones (Patrick’s boyfriend, Robert, and Clare’s parents) are in various stages of dealing with the fear and grief. Then there’s Bernie Wilson, the grouchy man who’s run down outside of Walmart and now sits comatose in intensive care. How long will he be in the coma? And what exactly is his story

The first word that comes to mind upon finishing my initial soiree with Mark Allan Gunnells is tight, as in tightly written, plotted, and paced. The horror in Before He Wakes is real-life stuff with no hint of the supernatural in sight, and the story is better for it. Lean and mean is the best way to roll when walking the line between thriller and horror. The power in the story comes from expertly timed beats that have the pace and feel of a Hollywood script with characters that you can not only root for but actually come to care about. The fact that they’re textured human beings without a hint of cliché is sublime, a coup that we need more of.

Patrick Young is a cerebral, level-headed, and capable protagonist written with care and truth. Clare Bennett is every parent’s teenage daughter, or at least she was until she spent months under the iron rule of Big Daddy. Speaking of the mysterious captor, he’s a menace in the shadows that proves the old adage of “less is more”. By the time you truly meet Big Daddy, you’ve been anticipating it for so long that your nerves are a tad frayed. Gunnells is surgical in keeping the tension high while two fantastic lead characters fight for their lives with logic and bravery. He also plays with the language in a way that constantly implies the deep trouble just around the corner before pulling back, thereby drawing you in by degrees.

There are just enough surprises to provide you with those “Oh, shit!” moments, particularly as the supporting cast steps fully into the light. The violence is of the starkly real and ugly variety, and nothing feels hokey despite being a classic abduction story in many ways. The animal violence is disturbing but necessary to drive what survival truly means not as an abstract but as a concrete reality.

Mark Allan Gunnells’ skill at making Big Daddy an unseen-but-never-out-of-frame monster that looms slowly larger with each page is impressive. He wields that skill with sinister patience and pays the story off with an ending that’s just downright mean. For the record, that’s NOT a bad thing. Thanks to his deft characterization, the ending is a punch in the balls that’s the perfect complement to that aforementioned kick in the teeth from his first impression.

Skillful and deceitful in equal measure, Before He Wakes is the best kind of mindfuck – the one that presents puzzle pieces you believe fit one way only to find that you’ve had it turned wrong the whole time. And once you turn it the right way? The picture becomes so much grimmer. The ticking clock that you feel (much like Patrick does during his entire escape) is as much a monster in this tale as Big Daddy himself is, and that’s what makes both the journey and the destination so sublime.

And did I mention that, as a native Clemson Tiger, I really love the setting? I did? Well, I promise we don’t make a habit of kidnapping and brutalizing people in our beautiful state. Mark Allan Gunnells is telling tales out of school.

Hopefully he keeps it up.


Overall: 4 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.
Buy from Bookshop.

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