Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
Mark Allan Gunnells
The first book I ever read for pleasure was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was maybe ten at the time, perhaps a little younger. It opened up a whole new world to me, and though it may sound a bit overly dramatic, it perhaps changed the course of my life.
I should start out by confessing that I do not come from a family of readers. Few books were to be found in our home, and my parents didn’t consider reading a particularly enjoyable pastime. Of course, my school had a library and I had been to the public library in my hometown, but I just didn’t have much interest in checking out any of the books because I hadn’t been taught to value fiction.
Until the day I met Alice and went along on her surreal and crazy adventure. One of my older sisters had stolen a copy from her school library (that’s a whole other story, don’t ask), and it was lying around the house. I was familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland though I’d never seen the movie, so I decided to give it a try.
And I instantly became lost in the story, falling down that rabbit hole with Alice. I found the book thoroughly engrossing, and I had my first experience with the magic of really fine storytelling. And that is what it truly felt like, as if I was under a spell. Enraptured. I don’t know any other word to describe it. I fell into the story in a way that had never happened with movies or television before.
One of the things that captured my imagination so totally was the surreal quality of the story. The pure insanity juxtaposed with the casual manner in which it was accepted by the characters. People could grow and shrink, cards were alive, cats could disappear, and rabbits could talk and tell time. It was all treated as so commonplace, and Alice was grounded with such a no-nonsense practicality that suspension of disbelief was effortless.
Not only was this the book that made me fall in love with reading, it was the book that made me fall in love with horror. Most people wouldn’t consider Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland horror, but it was certainly filled with images that terrified me as a child. The Queen of Hearts calling for decapitation, Alice with her elongated neck after eating the mushroom, the baby that turns into a pig, the creepy cat that leaves behind only a mischievous smile, even the strange tea party attended by slightly sinister characters—all these things had an element of horror to them that thrilled me and made me hunger for more.
When I finished the book, I immediately turned back to page one and started over. And after that, I began routinely checking out books from the library and devouring them. The darker and more mysterious the better. It was this love affair with story that made me want to tell them myself, igniting my love of writing.
So thank you Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for turning me into a book lover, a writer, and a horror hound.
There are authors that are “must reads” for me. Anytime Stephen King or Joe Lansdale or Robert McCammon or Neil Gaiman (just to name a few) put out a new book, it’s a guarantee that I’ll be buying and reading it.
However, I love to explore outside my regular stable of favorite authors. It thrills me to discover new writers, new voices, that excite and inspire me. Sometimes I discover these writers through word of mouth, sometimes just by perusing the catalogue of publishers I admire, and sometimes through interacting with writers on social media.
That’s how I discovered Aaron Dries. We became friends on Facebook through mutual friends, and he seemed like such a cool and funny guy, it made me want to try his work. He had three novels and a novella out, so I recently decided to start at the beginning and bought his first novel, The House of Sighs.
And what I discovered was that Dries is not only cool and funny, he’s also extremely talented. House of Sighs captivated me completely. The premise was simple but compelling, the cast of characters diverse and interesting. The structure of the book wasn’t traditional, full of flashbacks and some nonlinear storytelling, and yet he made it work. At no point did the narrative feel disjointed or confusing, but I felt like I knew these people and was therefore invested in their plight as a disturbed and unstable bus driver (who was also a thoroughly fleshed out character) took them hostage.
Halfway through the book, something happened that elevated the story from good to great. Dries surprised me. Maybe I should add an exclamation mark to that. Dries surprised me! I often read books where I’m not sure exactly how they will end, but it’s rare that a story takes a turn so unexpected that it leaves me floored. House of Sighs did that. And it managed to do this more than once with a turning of the tables near the end that brought forth a new threat.
As a lifelong reader who has read more books than I can count, I can’t emphasize enough just how delightful and exhilarating it can be when a writer takes you on a ride where you never know what to expect next. And for a horror novel, that really increases the sense of tension and suspense which is the cornerstone of any successful horror tale.
And House of Sighs plays this pitch perfect. The story was gripping and kept me on the hook from start to very satisfying finish. I followed it up with the author’s novella And the Night Growled Back, which was just as full of twists and as expertly done as the novel.
I’ve read a lot of good books this year, but The House of Sighs definitely ranks as one of the best. And it introduced me to a new writer with a strong voice and I believe a bright future in the business. Aaron Dries knows how to deliver a story that is engrossing and unexpected. He is now added to my stable of favorite authors and I’ll buy anything the man puts out.
What will I be reading thirty years from now? That’s a hard question to answer, but I’m going to try to do my best.
I’ll still be reading those who occupy my aforementioned stable of favorite writers, also exploring the classics of the genre. I’m a devoted horror and fantasy fan, and I have no doubt those will still be my genres of choice, though I will continue to expand my horizons by dipping my toes in other genres as well.
Above all else, what I hope I’m still doing is seeking out new writers I’ve never read before. I never want to become a stagnant reader, who only reads a select few authors and doesn’t venture beyond that. There are so many exciting and talented voices out there; of course I would never be able to sample them all, but I want to try as many as I possibly can.
I actually feel the older I get, the more open I am to trying new writers. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I was much more limited in my reading. For a time, particularly in high school, if it wasn’t Stephen King, I wasn’t interested. Then I added Koontz and Barker and Rice, but still the list was small and I didn’t like to step outside my particular literary box.
I was in my 30s when I really began to expand my reading and searching out lesser known authors, authors just getting their start in the publishing business. And now that I’m in my 40s, I’d say that at least half of what I read comes from writers I’m trying for the first time. I figure as I get older, that percentage will continue to grow.
So I predict in thirty years, I’ll be scouring bookstores and online sites for authors new to me, writers who are young and fresh and passionate. I’ll explore them in the major markets, in the small press, looking for novels, novellas, short stories, poems, comics, and whatever new formats may be available in the future.
I have always believed that the way to keep youthful as you age is to exercise your imagination, and what better way to exercise the imagination than by seeking out new fictional worlds to explore, new writers to act as guides through new ideas and stories.
So if you ask me who I will be reading thirty years from now, probably some writers who haven’t even been born yet.
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Mark Allan Gunnells loves to tell stories. He has since he was a kid, penning one-page tales that were Twilight Zone knockoffs. He likes to think he has gotten a little better since then. He has been lucky enough to work with some wonderful publishers such as Apex Publishing, Bad Moon Books, Journalstone, Evil Jester Press, Etopia, Sideshow Press, and Gallows Press. He loves reader feedback, and above all he loves telling stories. He lives in Greer, SC, with his fiance Craig A. Metcalf.
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