I adored the earlier single release of “Stuck On You”, so when it became the title story of a new collection from Crystal Lake Publishing, I was at the front of the queue. Jasper Bark has since become one of my favourite writers. As well as being a master of character and stage, he merges extremes of nastiness with dark humour to a degree that made me feel guilty for enjoying it so much. But not enough to stop reading, obviously. No, you never stop because Mr Bark doesn’t let you.
The title piece is up first and concerns the plight of Ricardo, a man assisting a drug mule called Consuela across the border from Mexico. He has a history of cheating on his wife and he falls at this hurdle too, succumbing to his lust with young Consuela in a roadside glade of trees. But a freak occurrence sees him stuck in a vivid nightmare of erotic, physical horror that grips from the opening page and doesn’t let go. It left this reader appalled, impressed, amused and ashamed. A cleverly constructed descent into hell, I would struggle to label it as either extreme horror or black comedy, such a seamless meld it is, and it’s certainly one of my favourite novellas of the year.
(My earlier, longer review of this story can be found here)
On to the short stories, “Taking The Piss” is up next, and maintains the high bar admirably with a brutal portrayal of urban, disenfranchised England. Our narrator is a hardcase you wouldn’t want to upset and despite being no stranger to prison, he has an admirably defining sense of right and wrong. So when a disabled boy is bullied and attacked by some gobshite wanker in his local pub, he decides to take conclusive action. The violence is ugly, the voice is convincing, and also works in the perfect audio version read by Chris Barnes (Available to listen for free here). We get another gleeful suckerpunch of a finale, and I think the price of this book is worth it for these two opening stories alone. But Jasper Bark is far from finished with you.
The tone shifts for “The Castigation Crunch”, a sharp satire about a demon and an oily economist who arrives in hell, full of ideas for organisational reform. The colourful underworld blends wonderfully with the world of management speak, the metaphors are effortless, and the humour much lighter. From PowerPoint presentations to fire and torture, the tale allows you to gather your breath after the brutal realism of the first two stories. Basically, you get to smile at this piece without feeling like you’ve done something wrong.
Up next is “Ill Met By Moonlight”, a sexually charged short about a lothario named Ben, his lover and partner. There are plenty of twists, but I’m not going to give anything away so you can enjoy it blind.
“The scalpels were so sharp Stephanie could almost taste them.”
Thus begins “How The Dark Bleeds” with a deeply troubled woman in a hospital basement. An impressively harrowing story, and one of the few here in which humour doesn’t get a look in, we slowly learn about whom she is and her fascination with blood and folklore. Neat flashbacks paint Stephanie’s difficult past, which include a miscarriage and her partner leaving her for her own sister. Of course she is damaged, but the more we discover, the more the plot thickens in several directions. A very thoughtful instalment in which folklore combines with intense personal torment, it brings classic tropes to a beautifully sinister hospital setting. Although a few medical procedural things didn’t quite add up, the author delivers another trademark slap of icy realisation towards the end. Brilliant stuff.
Next up, “Mouthful” is a slick flash piece about animal rights and a discredited new age researcher. It lets us realise the punchline JUST before it actually tells us, which is no mean feat, and I applaud the author’s quartz-like timing.
“Haunting The Past” plunges us into the soup with a trapped thief. Whilst trying to burgle properties that had been evacuated due to an impending landslide, our unfortunate anti-hero leaves it too late to scarper and ends up completely entombed in a house beneath an ocean of mud. All he has for company are what appear to be ghosts from the past, watching ethereal snippets of their lives in the rooms of the house. Are these apparitions the product of an unravelling mind, or could they actually be his only hope? This tale throws a different angle on the traditional ghost story, teasing us with a clever ambiguity about who’s actually the ghost, and I found the stout emotional core very satisfying.
I had read “End Of The Line” before in the underground-themed anthology of the same title, and it brings another stark opening line.
“He woke on the platform in a pool of blood.”
So we find an injured man, confused by memory loss on the platform of a disused station. A twisting, dimensional nightmare, this tale pans out like an ultra-adult version of the Twilight Zone. I’ll confess that I got confused when I first read it a couple of years ago in “End of the Line”, but found that it works much better here out of that context, unswamped by all things underground. A neatly bookended and multi-layered piece, I was chuffed to have finally “got” it.
The final story in this collection is another novella and a glorious slab of monster-horror. The previously unpublished “Dead Scalp” clocks in at 70 pages and was well worth saving until last.
It begins with a kangaroo court being held in the saloon of Dead Scalp, a dusty and dangerous Western town that oozes threat, sweat and blood. It’s run by a terrifying thug named Big Bill and populated entirely by outlaws, thanks to a local native called River Flow who brings them to the town via a mystical portal. The story follows a new arrival in town – James Briggs – who is on the run for armed robbery, and soon starts to wonder why everyone has enormous beards and impractically long hair. Not to mention being intrigued as to what “death by ingrowing” might entail.
Naturally, what it entails is hand-rubbing gruesomeness in the Jasper Bark tradition, but there’s the odd sour uppercut here too. A fun scene of monster gore in a graveyard is followed by some horrific violence towards a prostitute, and it’s quite a shock. The abrupt switch to sobering reality reminds us that as well as a B-movie beastie, this town is populated with some really nasty pieces of work.
Blood Meridian meets The Thing, “Dead Scalp” explodes with imagination without ever letting the characterisation slip. The tough guy swagger and dialogue is a delight and some of the blackly comic turns of phrase made me grin as I was swept along by the action. It’s a proud finale to the book and concludes with an evil twinkle in its eye, just like how it all began.
I highly recommend Stuck On You and I’m glad Jasper Bark chose extreme horror to spill his demons. Even if the shocking stuff isn’t normally your bag, these tales are so well written and vivid that it might be the book that converts you to the dark side. The atmosphere permeates the room, characters clamber from the pages, and rarely are offensive horror and humour such filthy – but perfect – bedfellows.
The book also comes with an amusing introduction by Pat Cadigan, plenty of immaculate artwork by Rob Moran, and a pleasing afterword by fellow horror mischief-maker John Llewellyn Probert.
So get reading, folks. I’m off for a bath in industrial bleach and holy water.