Review – “The Final Cut” by Jasper Bark

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There are two kinds of horror stories guaranteed to worm their way under my skin: those about snuff movies, and those written by Jasper Bark. Given his track record of elegant nastiness and a sense of humour that would make Satan’s concubines blush, I was delighted when he decided to run with the concept.

‘The Final Cut’ from Crystal Lake Publishing begins promisingly in a sinister lock-up. Here we meet Jimmy and Sam, two indie film-makers, who find themselves lashed to chairs by a dangerous loan-shark named Ashkan. Keen to settle a drug debt, Ashkan is forcing the young men to watch a snuff film as a taster of what their future holds if they don’t pay up sharpish.

fcWhile our two helpless protagonists are mesmerised by the sickening torture, the lock-up is invaded by unseen attackers who slaughter Ashkan and his entourage then vanish without a word. Left shocked and drenched in blood, Jimmy and Sam flee with the snuff film, and soon hatch a terribly ill-advised plan. They decide to use the illegal footage as the centrepiece for a new horror film of their own.

But during auditions for the wraparound segments of their project, they meet Melissa: an intriguing woman who bears an exact likeness to a victim in the snuff film. Jimmy and Sam soon find that ancient myths are alive in the city, and as curiosity and desire hook them in, they become entwined with a grim and erotic fantastique that seems to promise nothing but suffering for anyone concerned.

There’s a bit of everything in this superb book: philosophy, mythology, quiet horror, and of course plenty of gore and sex. Immediately after the horrific opening scene in the lock-up, there’s a taxi journey that features a fascinating discussion about ancient concepts infiltrating urban life, reminding us that there is always depth with Mr Bark. The extremes are not just to shock. They are sometimes used as a bludgeon to cripple us into joining Jimmy and Sam on their journey to hell, but also woven into the heart of the story and its themes.

I did wonder upon starting this novel if there would be a sense of humour. Jasper Bark’s 2014 novella ‘Stuck On You’ is one of the most darkly comical stories I’ve ever read (with his short story ‘Taking The Piss’ not far behind it). I soon discovered that ‘The Final Cut’ treads a far more sobering path, but that said, it’s not completely desolate. We get the familiar camaraderie and wit with character and dialogue, and there’s a magical alleyway segment that put me in mind of Harry Potter. We also get the occasional sick glint in the eye, such as this splendid hanging line at the end of a chapter:

“Please don’t let me come, not now.”

But the subject matter isn’t really designed for larks of even the blackest kind, and any momentary whimsy only serves to accentuate the darkness that will loom again so soon.

Due to their vile nature, snuff films are a great device for leaking sourness into the atmosphere, so I knew it would be carnival time for this author. I’ll say I was almost braced for the outrageously gruesome scenes that play out in high-definition, nerve-tenderising detail, but not quite, and I suspect there will be raised eyebrows from other seasoned readers too. The erotic threads are also an essential part of the narrative, and these become obsessive and tainted, with all boundaries of good taste hoofed aside in glee. One chapter in which a character has masturbated himself quite literally raw to the murder footage is an arresting image that I won’t forget in a hurry. But such displays are also there to be a triumph of mood, capturing a wonderful spiral of decline and abuse. Never has desire been so self-destructive and bleak.

The characters are all flawed, and while this is realistic (well-adjusted people tend not to end up involved with drugs and snuff films) it doesn’t always then make it easy for readers to care. But this author is no stranger to presenting selfish and irresponsible protagonists with wobbly moral cores, and knows how to keep them just the right side of the line. He explains their failings to reduce judgement, and introduce pathos and sympathy, and we soon realise that the tale isn’t so much about them anyway, but humanity as a whole and powers bigger than us all.

We’re treated to some terrifying antagonists. The gangsters are connected and palpably vicious, immediately recognisable as people you do not fuck with under any circumstance. The tone of this criminal underworld is immaculate, and also utilised to magnify the threat of the larger supernatural forces at work. When we learn that a chilling crime boss – a man casual with torture and execution – is genuinely afraid of these powers, it creates the menace without description and therefore also serves to maintain the mystery. The mythical elements are sufficiently tactile to suspend disbelief, and although I usually regard the paranormal as a bit of fun, it certainly doesn’t bring any fun to this party.

The back story is nicely built as the plot thickens, and it didn’t go in directions I expected. It’s one of those tales where details forever catch your attention, only to be neatly explained when you’d almost forgotten about them later on. This creates a very pleasing reading experience. It is also one in which you know you can relax, safe in the knowledge that the author has got you. Well, okay, don’t ever relax with a Jasper Bark novel – that way, insanity lies – but you know what I mean.

Reflections on horror as entertainment are worked into the dialogue: why we love it, the catharsis of creation, the functionalism and psychology behind it all. It discusses stories about stories, and the essence of storytelling itself, from ancient oral traditions through to digital media. In fact, it takes this thread to a level I haven’t seen before, and a very dark one at that. And do stories ever end?

There’s also some great material on celluloid fame, neatly concluding that: “Fame was all they had to show for their efforts, so they clung to it, like the stiffening fingers of a corpse clinging to the poisoned chalice that took its life.”

This book also nails the idea that you can’t unsee something, as any witness to atrocity – on video or otherwise – will wholeheartedly agree. In fact, ‘The Final Cut’ probably qualifies as a meta-documentary with its tantalising thoughts regarding horror, so it can be enjoyed on this level if you want. But such philosophy is added with the lightest of brush strokes, and never weighs it down as it builds to a satisfying showdown and a whole new layer of sick chills.

Some of Jasper Bark’s finales are twists or curveballs that leave you stunned and/or guiltily amused. Some are slow burners that take a while to sink in, and leave a strange feeling of violation. This is a bit of both, and actually rather epic overall as mere humans clash with horrors so grand. I also reread several earlier chapters upon finishing, and I love a piece that offers the opportunity to enjoy past scenes through a new filter when certain knowledge is in place. This time around, I also noticed some subconscious things the author had planted, which is a nice glimpse into the machinations of the writing art.

Jasper Bark has incredible storytelling skills, showcased in the way he can segue between splatterpunk, erotica, magical realism and gritty crime without glitch. Whether you’re familiar with this author or not, brace yourself, because you’ll be fouled either way. Like poor Sam who can’t stop abusing himself to snuff until his sanity is in tatters, you’ll just keep coming back for more.

I’m glad that there is something a bit wrong with Jasper Bark, and maybe the often-misused phrase “guilty pleasure” actually applies here. His talent would’ve been wasted on the wholesome and mainstream. Few people write to extremes with such craft and insight, and I’m eternally grateful that his imagination is irretrievably lost to the dark side. The world of horror would be a much nicer place without his stories, and that wouldn’t do at all.

 

Review – “Monster” by Matt Shaw and Michael Bray

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I’m a sucker for books with ominous warnings of offensiveness on the cover, and they’re usually there for a reason. But while it means that some extreme horror is on the way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s any good.

MonsterOn this occasion, I needn’t have worried. One of Matt Shaw’s infamous “black cover” series, this joint effort with Michael Bray is a bleak yet entertaining short novel.

We meet Ryan, a young office-worker, who wakes to find himself chained up in a grimy chamber of cold concrete and rusting pipes with no idea as to how or why he got there. It turns out that just prior to this, he’d discovered his short-term girlfriend was pregnant. Rather than head home to deal with the issue, he instead went to the pub with a friend to blow off steam, and this is the last thing he remembers.

Also introduced is Christina, a young mother working in a petrol station who entertains herself during the dull shifts by making up macabre stories about the customers being psychotic serial killers. One day however, she is somewhat too close to the truth and also finds herself imprisoned in the same dilapidated building.

Kicking off with a somewhat cinematic start that put me in the mind of “Saw”, I liked the immediately engaging character situations presented by “Monster”. These are normal people in whom we can invest, and there’s a tight air of mystery along with the anticipation of nastiness that surely awaits them. Because as well as Ryan and Christina’s initially-hidden captors, the building also seems to be home to an enormous mentally-ill man loping around the filthy corridors.

The book is pacy and well crafted, filling in the back story by switching between the 1st and 3rd person. The aura of menace cranks up slowly, and both Ryan and Christina’s reactions under the mounting terror are convincing. They have moments of sheer panic followed by stoical resolve and then back again, sometimes the desperation leading them to hope that all this is just one big extreme prank. One scene in which Ryan is fed morphine to stop him passing out from pain could have been darkly amusing in a different setting, such is his garbled, comical speech, but here, it’s used to true chilling effect.

As the book progresses, we meet the faces behind all this and learn their horrible plans. Their histories are just as dark as the current scenario, and they’re anything but one-dimensional monsters. These kidnappers are broken by being the victims and/or perpetrators of genuinely upsetting physical and psychological abuse, and the book riffs on some classic questions. Who’s the monster? Is there even one? Can somebody so damaged be evil? But the answers are not black and white, and the story didn’t pan out the way I thought, playing with my sympathies all the way.

As the warning would suggest, there are some harrowing scenes. I was pleased to discover that they aren’t gratuitous – there really is nothing more boring in horror – but essential to the questions that “Monster” presents. I’ve read stories that are more extreme than this, but finished them with a shrug and a whatever. Here, the horror is gauged just right to get under your skin. It’s not just the actual violence that disturbs, but also our potential for it, and the numbing consequences of systematic, accumulative abuse. There’s no humour, and some sections of the book are both deeply touching and depressing.

Being picky, I have two small gripes. The prose is generally slick and unintrusive, but there were a couple of times when the character POV changed mid-scene without warning and took me out of the moment. There is also a scene in which one character is forced into a terrible act, and it just seemed to happen a little too easily for me. But they’re my only complaints.

The finale is appropriately painful and sobering, but there’s also a nice little epilogue that raised a smile. It’s a classic vignette with a tone of ominous fun, and the only time that this very dark novel has a wry twinkle in its eye.

So there you have it. An eloquent introduction from both Matt Shaw and Michael Bray explains the nature of extreme horror, pushing the boundaries, and the fine line such authors tread. It’s refreshing to see such thoughtful reasoning in the subgenre, and that the shocks are intended to be a means to an end and not simply the end itself.

Happily, “Monster” is just the right side of the line. It succeeds by luring your ghoulish curiosity, working in some solid character investment to stop you getting away, then drags you off to hell. The themes of survival and the nature/nurture argument are tackled intelligently without playing killjoy to the grisly shenanigans, and I liked the lack of distinction between good and evil. And it certainly gets its hooks in. I read it during a work day, and snatched every coffee break or bus journey to get back to that grim place of blood-stained concrete and death. I’ve already downloaded another of the black cover books by Matt Shaw, and I suspect it won’t be the last.