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 – “Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts” by Jasper Bark

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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.”

Rob MoranThus 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.

Review – “Stuck On You” by Jasper Bark

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“Warning! Do not buy this book, gentle reader” begins the blurb of this novella from Crystal Lake Publishing. It continues in a similar vein, shooing potential buyers away with cautions of plumbed depths but without actually offering any details about the contents. So how could I resist? But whether that purchase was the result of rash curiosity or clever marketing is irrelevent. “Stuck On You” is both the best and the most gleefully unpleasant thing I’ve read this year.

Stuck on youThe tale concerns Ricardo, an American on a trip into Mexico to acquire some cheap artisan crafts for his wife to sell back home. As he’s a bit of a lothario with form for cheating, these trips are as much a test of his fidelity as a business venture. So when he bumps into young Consuela – an alluring drug mule who wants passage across the border – we’re not surprised when he agrees to give her a lift. Ricardo becomes increasingly horny throughout the journey, and while waiting on a deserted country lane for Consuela’s dealer to make contact, he gets the reward he was really after.

And that’s when it goes horribly wrong.

Terrifying-urban-legend meets worst-possible-nightmare wrong.

This is going to be an unusual and restrained review from me. Although that’s the basic set-up of the story, I’m not going to spill any specifics of what happens to Ricardo. This isn’t because of spoilers, as chapter one begins after his nightmare is already underway and has it all laid out within the first few pages. No, I’m holding back because I read it blind with no idea what was coming, and loved it that way. So I’ll just let Jasper Bark tell you what happens instead. Because you are going to read this.

Why? Heady erotica and extreme body-horror collide with a bang, sending us and Ricardo on a horrific downward spiral that gets nastier and… dare I say it… more amusing with every turn of the page. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. And then again. And again.

The helpless descent is structured like a black comedy, and borders on gross-out slapstick at times, but never loses its agonisingly sharp edges. It made me writhe, recoil and smile, sometimes all at the same time, which is probably the most joyfully offensive thing about it. I almost felt dirty for allowing myself to become so charmed.

“Stuck on You” ticks every box with regard to pace, character and evocation. Just leave your concern for all that is good and wholesome at the door. The conclusion is glorious – a chilling suckerpunch that cleverly ties up this gruesome package – and my mouth might actually have fallen open for a moment. Then I exhaled and shook my head slowly as I put the book down, partly sickened by the assault, but mostly in sheer admiration of it.

If you can stomach the hard stuff, then you’ll devour this gripping piece in one sitting. I love it when extreme fiction is so superbly written, and I will definitely be buying Jasper Bark’s collection when it comes out in a month or two.

Never has an author’s evil eye twinkled so bright. Highly recommended.

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