Monday, September 21, 2020

Gunnells, 324 Abercorn (2020)

Mark Allen Gunnells, 324 Abercorn. Crystal Lake Publishing, 2020. Pp. 198. ISBN 978-1-6466-9308-5. $11.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

I think I’ve mentioned before that I love a good haunted house story. I’m a horror fan through and through, and tales involving hauntings, ghosts, and phantoms are my absolute favourites. 324 Abercorn, by Mark Allen Gunnells, promises a very classic story that owes a great deal to Stephen King and Poppy Z. Brite, with a haunted mansion, a sympathetic protagonist, and a sultry southern gothic setting. But does it hold up to its lofty ambitions?

It’s pretty clear from the start where the author got his inspirations from. Author Brad has seen enormous financial success from his five spooky bestsellers, and his finally able to buy his dream house; a supposedly haunted house in the steamy, colourful southern city of Savannah. In amonst the rich history and torrid atmosphere, Brad meets and almost immediately begins dating Bias, a younger man who runs ghost tours in the area, and becomes immersed in the rich history of his house, particularly the slave graveyard within its borders.

It’s pretty clear that Gunnells was going for effectively a melding of King and Brite, and hey, why not? One could do a lot worse than the theoretical collaboration of two masters in the field. There’s also clearly a certain amount of wish fulfillment involved. Brad isn’t just a best-selling, millionaire author with five books and at least one film to his name, he also finds his true love and a thriving LGBTQ community within a few days of moving to his new home in the usually conservative American South. And he and his new boyfriend don’t suffer so much as a single homophobic slur shouted from a passing car. But Savannah is, apparently, extremely LGBT friendly, so perhaps that’s not as unrealistic as it might seem at first glance. I haven’t been there, so I wouldn’t know. But even if it is the stuff of dreams, there’s no harm in an author indulging in a little fantasising in his own work, and it’s always nice to see some queer representation.

I can’t discuss this, however, without mentioning a very jarring and rather upsetting moment in the book. During Brad and Bias’ date, Brad speculates that a mutual aquaintance might be bisexual. Bias scoffs, “The only genuinely bisexual people I’ve ever met have been women. Bisexual men are just gay guys who can’t commit to fully leaving the closet.” That’s bad enough, but few moments later, as they discuss the modern queer scene, Bias cheerfully says that the term “fag-hag” “[…] went out with the likes of tr*nny and bull-dyke” (censorship mine).

I might be willing to chalk this up to ignorance or bias (ha-ha) on the character’s part, but nobody calls Bias out on this, they never encounter anyone openly bisexual or trans, it’s not used as any kind of commentary on the cis gay male community’s sometimes problematic view of trans and bisexual people/men, and the issue is never brought up again. In amongst what, up until that point, had seemed to be a very LGBT representative novel, it was more than a bit of a jolt. I hope that this wasn’t just intended as a quirky character moment, because all it does is make Bias (and by extension, the author) seem very unlikeable.

Thankfully, that is the only moment of real unpleasantness. Brad gathers together a nice little Scooby Gang of locals, including new boyfriend, the local museum curator, Bias’ drag queen roommate, a group of ghost hunters from the local university, and the stray cat who came with the house, and they’re all set to start investigating when strange things start happening at his new house. But judging from how quickly things begin deteriorating for Brad, from items moving on their own to terrifying hallucinations, they’ll have to work fast. It’s a fun setup, and the characters are all enjoyable and likable (Bias’ bias aside). The writing is decent, although some aspects of the haunting were a bit ridiculous (Phantom the cat turning into a panther and Brad whacking it with a copy of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones felt like a scene from a Simon Pegg film). The city of Savannah is lovingly and colourfully described, and makes for a rich and appealing setting. All the elements of a good ghost story are there. So why did 324 Abercorn ultimately fall flat for me?

I think the answer is that Gunnells fell into the opposite trap that Stephen King tends to run afoul of. King is frequently accused of what he fondly calls “Typewriter diarrhea”; critics will say his books are over-long, convoluted, and badly in need of a good editor. And in the end, the biggest issue that I had with 324 Abercorn is that it is too short.

324 Abercorn is less than 200 pages long. The characters are likeable, but we barely have any time to get to know them before the action hits. There’s no chance to develop any kind of atmosphere or real sense of suspense. Some characters, like the ghost hunters, appear for one scene and then vanish. Another dies just as we start getting to know him. There was the hint of an interesting side plot where the police accused Brad of faking the haunting to drum up interest in his novels, but again, it appeared for one scene and went nowhere. It was all rather infuriating. There was easy potential for another 100 or so pages with the material offered, and instead we get the skeletonised bones of what could have been a much more interesting story.

I’d probably be able to forgive all of that… but unfortunately the ending proved, to my mind, highly disappointing. I cannot explain why without going into spoilers. Like much of the book, it felt rushed, one aspect of it didn’t make much sense, but it just also felt… I don’t know if lazy is the right word, but it’s the best that I can come up with for now. It left me feeling deeply unsatisfied, and killed any sense of horror or the uncanny that had been built up.

324 Abercorn has some lofty ambitions, and for a while it looks like it might reach them. Unfortunately, it proved to be a novella that should have been either cut down to a short story or built up to a solid 250 to 300 page novel. Between the undeveloped characters and a very underwhelming ending, I can’t see myself recommending this book. With that said, I think Mark Gunnells is a talented writer and has the potential to be a great one. Don’t be afraid to develop your story and characters, Mr Gunnells. There’s a lot of richness to them just begging to be let out.

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