If Hunter S. Thompson had written a Blair Witch tie-in, it might have looked a little something like this. A gonzo ghost story that trades in unreliable narration and drug-fuelled devastation, The Last Days of Jack Sparks marks the original fiction debut of music journalist and now novelist Jason Arnopp, and has as its central character a man who made his name writing for the NME before properly letting loose in a few bestselling books.
That’s where the similarities between the author and the authored end, however. I have reason to believe that Jason Arnopp is a genuinely decent human being, whereas Jack Sparks is an egotistical twit who, for his first trick, travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain on a pogo stick, offending everyone he encountered equally. Since then, he’s gobbled up gang culture and gotten close to a couple of Class A chemical concoctions, with similarly repugnant results.
Now, for his new novel, he’s set his sights on a Halloween theme. Could ghosts really be real? Our intrepid reporter wants to know. So much so that Jack Sparks on the Supernatural will be his last book, because he died, quite violently, while writing it.
We learn this thanks to Jack Sparks’ estranged brother Alastair, who footnotes and provides a foreword for the first draft of the found fiction that follows:
The decision to publish Jack Sparks on the Supernatural in its entirely uncensored form was in no way taken lightly, and I know how very difficult it is for the bereaved to read accounts of such horrendous events. Yet I also hope this book may yield some form of closure and put an end to unhelpful internet speculation—not least concerning the nature of my brother’s death.
Be warned, though, that Alastair’s intentions might not be so wholly noble. “Believe me,” he begs—but why should we? There’s something defensive, dare I say desperate, about his abrupt introduction. And not long later, we learn that he and his brother weren’t even on speaking terms towards the end of Jack’s tenure. Might Alastair have an axe of his own to grind?
Jack indubitably does. He’s a man on a mission at the outset of his ultimate effort: not to find evidence of things that go bump in the night, but to disprove every indication that they may. To wit, he sits in on an exorcism in Italy; laughs out loud as he live-tweets it, even. What he sees that day is hard to explain away, but Jack is determined to do so, or die trying.
After that catastrophe—for it’s in Italy that the body count begins—he visits with a so-called combat magician in Hong Kong and sneers from the sidelines as she kicks an evil spirit’s ethereal ass. Here, too, Jack senses an unearthly presence, but instead of admitting to this, he dismisses his suspicions and heads to Hollywood. There, he hires a sevensome of struggling scientists in the hopes of reproducing the results of a seventies experiment which supposedly showed that ghosts are not depictions of dead people but living thoughts given form.
In the midst of all this, our protagonist’s precious internet presence is purloined, and a creepy video is released to his hundreds of thousands of subscribers. It’s deleted almost immediately, but not before Jack has seen it himself, and realised that it means more than it seems.
Arranging his narrative around such a self-centred central perspective means that Arnopp has to walk quite the tightrope in his characterisation of Jack, but he does so, dear reader, without the slightest stumble.
There’s no question that Jack is an immensely objectionable person. “Like religion, drug addiction is for the weak,” he believes. Later, he notes that he has “never cared about anyone who isn’t Jack Sparks. There’s a smoking pit where my empathy should be,” and that’s as may be, but although Jack is a far cry from a nice guy, that isn’t to say he ain’t entertaining. As he takes aim at the sacred, pokes fun at the profane, says and does the things we decent human beings would feel guilty simply for thinking, you have to laugh. If you don’t, I dare say this isn’t the book for you.
If you have it in your heart to laugh at Jack, you’re sure to feel a certain sympathy for him too, not least because his brother’s editorial intrusions extend beyond the aforementioned introduction. At pains to prove that his sordid sibling is not to be trusted, and thus that he is, Alastair often interrupts Jack’s narrative to present evidence that the latter lacks veracity. And it’s true, to be sure, that the titular figure is hiding something significant. There comes a pivotal point in the novel when he admits as much:
Up until now, I’ve described real events while distorting certain truths. I’ve played down the drugs. I’ve made no mention of the fear, the tears, all that slow-boil nausea in my guts. I haven’t told you the real reason I’m writing Jack Sparks on the Supernatural.
This confession serves to underscore the sense that there’s much amiss with the other Sparks’ actions, especially given that the dead can’t defend themselves. Whatever dark deeds Jack has done, he’s already paid the ultimate price… and yet here we have his own flesh and blood rubbing salt in said mortal wound.
Alastair’s agenda is a fascinating question with which to wrestle, and it’s my pleasure to tell you the author addresses it cleverly at the same time as bringing the other elements of The Last Days of Jack Sparks together in time for a truly fearsome finale that left me feeling like I’d read something very special. Arnopp’s novel isn’t always awesome—the early-going is unfortunately episodic, and the Hollywood Paranormals are too numerous to do justice to—but when it is, it’s every inch as cruel and cool and unusual as the Fear and Loathing series that Jack Sparks idolises. Bloomin’ spooky, too.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is published by Orbit—available now in the UK and September 13th in the US.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.