Asylum, a new novella by Mark Allan Gunnells published by Apex’s Zombie Feed Press imprint, succeeds for two primary reasons. It adheres to the classic, tried-and-true George Romero formula of a diverse group of people trapped inside a makeshift fortress, surrounded by the shambling hungry undead, forced to cooperate in a fight for mental and physical survival. Second, the characters trapped within are well drawn, and as we learn more about them we care about them (for the most part).
When I began publishing fiction in the early ‘90s, horror reigned supreme and hot new writers of the splatterpunk movement were pushing the dark boundaries of the genre ever outward, including wild new takes on Romero’s nightmarish, ultimate war of attrition. But some works by otherwise talented writers -- recall several of the titles published by the popular Dell Abyss imprint -- featured bleak novels populated by utterly reprehensible characters that Satan himself would be incapable of caring for.
Thankfully, Gunnells has steered clear of those pitfalls. And though I’ve written about both kinds, I like slow-moving zombies the best. Don’t you? They’re plodders, uncoordinated and relatively easy to kill, but -- they creep up on you. And in the end, there are just too many of them, Barbara.
Curtis is a twenty-year-old college student who picks a bad night to reluctantly visit his first gay club with his reckless, sex-crazed best friend, Jimmy. A night of revelry turns to nightmare as the living dead arrive and attack Jimmy’s latest conquest outside of the club. Curtis and Jimmy retreat inside the Asylum dance club, and the siege against sanity and survival begins. The small band of survivors includes a colorful but realistic bunch -- a drag queen, grizzled war veteran bartender, humorous gay couple, and a disc jockey who unravels. Gunnells’s characters are not stereotypes, and I particularly enjoyed Gil the bartender, who has an older man’s longer perspective on gays fighting to find acceptance and their place in American society while enduring decades of persecution.
Of course, Curtis and the others must survive their personal fears and demons as well as the hordes of undead searching for a way inside the club, and this adds nice dimension to an otherwise familiar setup. Things predictably break down, but the pacing is suspenseful and the dialog is crisp -- a native of South Carolina who still lives in his small hometown, Gunnells has published numerous short stories in mainly small-press publications, and he’s paid his journeyman dues. In the young protagonist, Curtis, he has undoubtedly drawn from his own experiences with small-town prejudice. There are some gruesome, hard-edged scenes reminiscent of Joe Lansdale and Edward Bryant’s work in the genre, but this is another tale in the annals of the great zombie apocalypse, viewed from a different social lens, right? Enjoy.
Asylum is available in electronic and print versions from Amazon and Smashwords.