Jason Arnopp is one of those writers who remains largely unknown in geek circles, despite a lengthy career working on stuff we love. He’s written for British television and scripted Doctor Who audiobooks, and only recently delved into novels and short stories. But with the publication of The Last Days of Jack Sparks, Arnopp’s days of flyig under the radar are likely over, because he’s accomplished something striking, crafting a darkly comic, genuinely unnerving, incredibly well-executed horror novel.
How good is it? It’s both a spiritual successor to Daniel Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and proof that old horror tropes can be updated to terrorize our jaded age of social media, ubiquitous gadgets, and Internet overload. Often when horror tries to plumb the dark side of our technological existence, there is too much emphasis on the trappings of the modern era. Arnopp sets his story in a recognizably modern world without an over-reliance on references to technology—and in the process, creates one of the creepiest books you’ll read this year.
A Fantastic Character
A first-person novel sinks or swim on the voice of the narrator, and Arnopp has created a doozy in Jack Sparks. A journalist blending the personas of Russell Brand and Hunter S. Thompson, Sparks makes his living writing gonzo books based on his extremely first-hand research. The story opens with email exchanges discussing the success of Sparks latest opus, “Jack Sparks on Drugs,” which left him an addict (he also verbally assaulted his publisher and needed a ghostwriter to finish it). Sparks jumps off the page, a smart, prickly anti-hero, convinced of his own genius. His thoughts are extremely fun to read. While you won’t like Jack very much, you’ll hang on his every word.
Jack Sparks on Unreliableness
That being said, Arnopp knows that the root of horror and suspense is uncertainty. The reason we hesitate to open a door in a dark, silent house is because we don’t know what’s on the other side, and he uses it against us in a subtle build of tension. We know going in (title spoiler!) that Jack Sparks will be dead by the end of the tale; the novel is structured as Sparks’ latest manuscript, “Jack Sparks on the Supernatural,” left behind as a draft with notes from the author and his editor, along with supplementary material from Spark’s brother, who’s preparing the book for posthumous publication.
In the early going, Sparks seems reliable: smart, egotistical, convinced that the occult is a bunch of hooey. After he interrupts an exorcism with a fit of giggling, a mysterious video appears on Jack’s popular YouTube channel—a video he didn’t upload, which appears to prove the occult is, in fact, very real. From this point on, Jack’s book shifts focus to the occurrence of events he can’t explain—and his reliability as a narrator appears to drop off a cliff. Notes from his brother, editor, and agent sometimes flatly contradict or cloud what Jack has just told us, and we’re reminded he’s a recovering addict who almost had a breakdown writing his last book.
The Downward Spiral
Jack’s downward spiral is an efficient engine for driving horror. He becomes obsessed with discovering who uploaded the mysterious video and proving the supernatural can’t possibly be real—even as increasingly bizarre and terrifying things seem to be happening to him (circumstances complicated by his unreliability). His globe-trotting quest leads to a series of truly frightening moments that, we can assure you, caused at least one reader to drop the book in surprise. One of them occurs when Jack hooks up with a group of paranormal investigators seeking to replicate a famous experiment from the 1970s (scientifically proven to be the most frightening of all decades)—it’s a moment that truly shocks and unnerves.
Lest you think this is a grim and humorless book, don’t fret; much as its spiritual predecessor House of Leaves offered moments of inky black humor, Jack Sparks injects moments of levity )if not downright absurdity) into his harrowing account. Jack likes himself very much, but his ego is supported by his writing, which is sharp and hilarious—especially in the early going, when he’s still clinging to his belief that the supernatural occurrences he’s experiencing are part of some elaborate con (or evidence of his own failing faculties).
The Guessing Game
With a setup involving the death of the narrator, it’s no spoiler to say that the book ends with a hell of a twist. Arnopp doesn’t play dirty, he doesn’t play tricks, and he doesn’t cheat—the ending is a killer payoff that feels earned.