Author Mark Allan Gunnells grew up in a household that didn’t set too many boundaries when it came to movies. He was a wee lad of five when he first saw the television miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot, based on the novel by Stephen King. It was his first taste of fear in a horror film, but the defining moment–the one that created a horror fan for life–would come just a few years later.
“When I was around ten, my mother watched The Exorcist on television, and she let me watch with her,” he said as he sat down with iHorror for Horror Pride Month. “I only made it about halfway through before I started hiding behind the sofa and she sent me to bed. Nothing else that I watched at that age had that kind of profound effect on me. The fact that there were stories that could effect you so much that you would get up and go hide behind the sofa? From then on, I was just seeking out horror movies. When I started reading, I was seeking out horror novels. By the time I was ten years old, I was already a horror addict.”
As it happens, Stephen King continued to play a role in Gunnells’s life. Much like the rest of the world, he doesn’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t know who the author was, he explained. It was through King that he also came to understand adaptation after picking up a copy of Night Shift at his school library and reading the story “Children of the Corn.”
“I had seen the movie version of the story and it had a happy ending, but the actual story itself definitely did not,” Gunnells explained. “I don’t think I’d ever realized before that you could have just a really not happy ending and you could have characters who aren’t traditionally likeable but are still compelling. Then what really sealed it for me was the horror felt so relatable. It felt like it could be happening down the street from me.”
Shortly after, he picked up King’s novel, It. He says he remembered thinking he would never finish it, but it was just so compelling that it drew him in completely. King would remain, perhaps, the largest influence on the burgeoning writer’s horror life until he later discovered Clive Barker.
Horror novels and movies weren’t the only things the author was discovering at the time, however. It was also during this time that he began to understand that he just was not like the other boys his age, though he admits he did not have the understanding or the vocabulary to express that he was gay.
“I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but I had crushes on guys,” the author said. “I had this huge crush on Luke Skywalker. This is going to sound ridiculous. I would imagine I was in Star Wars but I couldn’t walk for some reason so Luke Skywalker had to carry me everywhere. I would imagine him carrying me with my arms around his neck.”
Still, the concept of being gay was foreign to him. For a while, he pointed out, he even thought he might have been confused thinking he was a girl because he did not know yet that there were men who were attracted to other men. When he did realize what it was and what it meant, he went through a deeply religious phase where he tried to “pray the gay away.”
“That didn’t work obviously,” he said with a laugh. “So, by the time I was in high school, I really began to accept it, though I wasn’t in a place to be open about it with other people. That came when I was in college. From a very early age, I knew it was there, but I had to go through all that stuff that gay people go through before you can admit it and deal with all that shame that the rest of the world has put on you because of it.”
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, horror did not offer much for LGBTQ+ representation. Honestly, in 2021, it doesn’t either, though there is markedly more.
Sadly, this pressed down on the author as he first began to write. Even after accepting his identity as a gay man, it was difficult for him to put that into his writing. It felt as though he just wasn’t allowed to do that.
Then, Clive Barker came out.
“I know a lot of people have said that everyone in the industry knew, but I wasn’t in the industry. I was in Gaffney, SC,” Gunnells said. “I bought a copy of The Advocate magazine where he came out. Like, it was this huge thing for me because he was this really well-known name in horror. Then, he released this novel called Sacrament that had this gay main character published by a major publishing house. ”
Emboldened by this news, the author set out to find more and discovered the works of Poppy Z. Brite.
Somewhere between Barker and Brite, Gunnells found his own voice and his own objective. If others weren’t providing the representation he wanted to see, he would just have to write it himself. That’s exactly what he did.
His next hurdle was looming on the horizon, but by this time, the author had learned enough about himself that standing his ground was becoming second nature.
“When I first started publishing around 2005, I ran into publishers and editors who said, ‘Don’t be too openly gay online because it’s going to ruin your career,'” he said. “This was a time when it was mostly message boards. They told me making stories with gay main characters was going to alienate the heterosexual male fan base of horror. I had a publisher who told me that I should publish a few things with straight characters before I published with gay characters so that people wouldn’t associate me with writing books for gay people as if straight people can’t read books with gay characters. I had some publishers tell me that I needed to find a publisher that specifically targeted the gay audience because again, they just couldn’t conceive that straight audiences might read books with gay characters.”
It was the age-old idea that a straight person cannot identify or empathize with a gay story even though it is expected, in a heteronormative world, that LGBTQ+ people can and will empathize with those who are straight. What they fail to recognize is that we’ve been given no choice, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t hurt to put straight readers and watchers in the same position.
Though it was frustrating, Gunnells stuck to his path, writing his stories, and eventually finding publishers who would take the chance on him. He admits that these conversations don’t happen as often in 2021 as they did in 2005 but they do still happen.
“I have been told when I talk about issues of diversity and representation that I’m off-putting to people, but I don’t really care because it’s an important topic that needs to be talked about,” Gunnells pointed out. “You can acknowledge and recognize the steps that have been made and still acknowledge that there is still a ways to go. I’m very happy with where I am and with the publishers I have worked with but how many people can name five best-selling gay horror authors. How about five African American horror authors?”
It’s a point well-made, and one that Gunnells continues to talk about as he continues his writing journey. His most recent novel, Before He Wakes, published just a couple of weeks ago. The suspense thriller centers on two young people who are kidnapped. When their captor leaves to get supplies, he’s injured in a car accident and unable to return, leaving them trapped with no food or water.
As for other authors whose work he admires and who craft authentic gay characters, he points to the work of Aaron Dries, Norman Prentiss, and J. Daniel Stone to name just a few.
As our interview came to its inevitable conclusion, Gunnells left me with one final thought.
“Them more diversely you read, the more you understand about the world. The more you understand people who aren’t necessarily just like you. I’ve had people say, ‘Well you don’t want someone to read you just because you’re gay.’ Actually, I’m okay with that. If that’s what brought them to me that’s fine. I only hope I provide them a story that keeps them coming back.”
To learn more about Mark Allan Gunnells and his catalog of books, check out his author page on Amazon.