Book Review: Before He Wakes by Mark Allan Gunnells
BEFORE HE WAKES BY MARK ALLAN GUNNELLS
Review by Leeroy Cross James
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Synopsis: Before I entered Mark Allan Gunnells’s latest thriller, I examined the cover design. At first, I thought the lonely image of a standard house with exposed beams, but upon closer inspection I realised it was actually a steel cage—a hint towards what I was going to experience in this fast-paced claustrophobic tale of isolation and survival. But the cover gave me food for thought, in the respect that we never know what lurks behind closed doors, even in somewhere as safe as a regular house that you probably walk past every day. It was this thought that I came back to after I finished the book. It made it even more terrifying when it became clear that the “monster” in this horror story could very well be someone just as human as you or me.
Before He Wakes is the story of university student Patrick Young who is snatched during his morning jog and later finds himself trapped in a basement. But he’s not alone, Clare Barrett, a teenage girl who has been missing for months, is down there with him. When their kidnapper doesn’t return home, they work together to get out of their prison, but little do they knew, their kidnapper is still out there. Isolated, contained and with time against them, Patrick and Clare attempt to escape.
Gunnells dives straight into the action during the opening prologue and chapters where Patrick manages to piece together why he has been captured very quickly. In between the real time chapters there are also some flashback chapters that bridge in the gaps and expand character backstory. In certain chapters we also get an omniscient perspective of some of the supporting players such as Patrick’s boyfriend Robert and Clare’s parents. I appreciated the chance to get to know these characters and wondered where they would fit into the story. Although Gunnells manages to flesh out his supporting characters in such a character focused story, I felt that their conclusions in the tale were sudden or could have done with more. As much we learned a great deal about our two central protagonists this way, I was expecting a little more from these characters—especially Robert. But nevertheless, it didn’t take away anything from the story as we already have enough characters to truly put our focus on.
The way that the villain, known as ‘Big Daddy’, is portrayed through dialogue really shows how attention to detail is important to Gunnells’s craft as an author. Although we think we know Big Daddy, we don’t get sense of how sadistic he really is until his actions are relayed to Patrick through Clare’s experience of being in that basement for so long. The half-full bowls of dog food pellets and buckets left to be used as a toilet are just the start. The fear comes from not knowing the true capabilities of this deranged individual—essentially because he is rarely in the book at all, yet he is always present. This is a skill I really admire from Gunnells, and what makes the book a truly terrifying thriller. As each chapter goes along, we keep expecting someone to come home and hinder Patrick and Clare’s escape plan. It’s a masterclass not only in pace, but also in nail-biting tension.
Just when you think Gunnells has dealt all of his cards and you think you know how this tale of terror is going to end, we are hit with a killer twist that has stayed with me ever since I finished the book. And quite frankly, the ending is a huge punch to the chest—one I relished because I never saw it coming. It was clever, chilling, cold and a reminder that we never truly know everything, even with an abundance of details.
Mark has written various novels and short stories over the years, at the start of the year he released his original and fantastic ghost story 2B with Valhalla Books. With an impressive back catalogue of books, if you enjoy Before He Wakes you’ll never be short of your next Mark Allan Gunnells fix.
Leeroy Cross James is a horror writer from Cheshire, UK. His short stories have been adapted by horror narrators on their Podcasts and YouTube Channels. He’s currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at John Moores University in Liverpool.
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