Book Haven and Other Curiosities by Mark Allan Gunnells
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing | Release Date: April 26, 2019 | Pages: 219 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mark Allan Gunnells delivers a solid collection of short stories, poems, and a novella in Book Haven and Other Curiosities.
The titular “Book Haven” kicks things off, and Gunnells delivers a neat little cloak-and-dagger espionage story here. A few hundred years in the future, all literature has been digitized and print books are little more than rare antiquities. A terrorist cyber attack, dubbed The Wipe, destroys the ebook collections of the world, erasing every digital copy of every piece of literature. It falls to a newly created government library service to acquire print editions and rebuild the world’s ebooks...which works out about as well as you'd think. “Book Haven” is a nifty little dystopian work, but mostly it's just a lovely ode to books, which I really dug.
Following “Book Haven,” which comprises very nearly the first half of this collection, are 19 other stories. Given the bulk of stories here, I won’t go into specifics about each of these but the majority of them are all pretty satisfying, quick, punchy reads and Gunnells delivers some interesting twists in a number of them. In fact, he’s really good at setting up a premise that you think is headed one way, and then spins it off into a whole other direction entirely.
For instance, I initially thought “C U Soon” was going to be a pretty light-hearted, comedic affair. The gist of this one involves a teenage couple, one of whom dies in an automobile accident after her partner sends her a dick pic. It’s a wild premise that I thought might have been the set-up for an extended joke (it’s also possible I’m just a sicko), but instead Gunnells plays it seriously and goes for the heart with a story about ghosts and guilt. “C U Soon” packs an emotional wallop in a fairly slim page count.
While a number of these Other Curiosities lean toward horror, I really enjoyed the lovely short fiction piece, “The Desk,” revolving around a writer who discovers a trove of manuscripts left behind in his new home by the previous owner. Again, I expected the premise to play out a certain way, but Gunnells shifted into some unexpected territory. This is a credit, also, to the book’s organization. There’s a certain ebb and flow to the narrative beats here, a following of certain thematic arcs, that give the collection a certain rhythm. By the time you’ve settled in and become comfortable with those beats, Gunnells upends it again to deliver some surprises, such as with two pieces of gay erotica horror late in the game. For a collection of otherwise fairly timid stories, encountering these sexually charged piece was a bit surprising! “Tanner” was the better of the two, in my opinion, revolving around a haunted used tanning bed. It’s a fun, silly conceit, but one that’s ripe for horror, along with some other exploits, and Gunnells plays it to the hilt. And, again, once you’ve settled into the shared commonalities of this batch of stories and are primed to expect more similar experiences, Gunnells flips the script again in “The Farm.” Here, a movie fan tours the real-life location of a cult horror movie classic. What starts off as a meet-cute, flirty little story between Becket and Victor charts off into much darker territory that subverts expectations.
Book Haven and Other Curiosities presents a broad range of Gunnells’ talent across multiple genres. Gunnells is a great short story writer, presenting clean, quick cuts that get right to the bone. It’s not easy to craft a story that delivers on both character and plot and still manages to surprise or upend all that came before, but Gunnells is a pro at it. He’s a gifted short story writer, and this collection is excellent showcase of his prowess in the field.