« The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan | Main | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders »

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Orbit on April 4, 2017

The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a fictional-presented-as-real exploration of the supernatural from the perspective of a skeptic (Jack Sparks), but it’s grounded in the philosophy of belief systems. A “combat magician” talks to Sparks about Robert Anton Wilson’s notion that people should neither believe nor disbelieve, whether the subject under consideration is science or religion or the supernatural, because belief destroys intelligence. The notion that it is arrogant to profess belief (or disbelief) in any version of reality when there is so much about the universe we don’t understand appeals to me, as does the novel.

Having made a career of writing about himself as he does things that are interesting, self-destructive, or both, Jack Sparks embarked on his fourth book, Jack Sparks and the Supernatural. A foreword by his brother reveals that it is his last book because Jack is dead. And it is the dead Jack Sparks’ book that is presented to the reader, along with his brother’s edits.

Having decided to write about the supernatural, Jack attends an exorcism in Italy. It’s spooky, but not as spooky as the video that suddenly shows up on his YouTube channel, even though he didn’t post it. The video, shot in a Blair Witch Project style, purports to show an aggressive, ghost-like being. There are also three demonic names spoken on the video … or are there?

The priest who performs the exorcism gives Jack a book that purports to describe Jack’s death, but Jack doesn’t read it because it seems like too much information. After a trip to Hong Kong to watch a couple of ghostbusters rid a houseboat of spirits, even more creepy things begin to happen to Jack. Much of the novel centers upon Jack’s transformation from skeptic to believer, although what he believes in and why are questions that the reader will ponder until the “truth” is revealed.

Editorial additions to the text, inserted by Jack’s brother, provide a counterpoint to Jack’s depiction of himself. To others, Jack was arrogant, self-indulgent, and more interested in keeping abreast of his social media presence than in having an actual conversation with a physically present person. At the same time, Jack’s obsession with YouTube and other social media outlets highlights the growing difficulty of distinguishing the real from the fake when nobody acts as a filter to authenticate news stories or videos.

I like the way the novel balances ambiguity with the conventions of horror. Is Jack really experiencing paranormal phenomena? Is there a rational explanation for the manifestations he witnesses? Or is Jack having ‘shroom flashbacks, hallucinations that might be related to the drugs he consumed while writing his last book? All of those explanations occur to Jack, but they don’t detract from the truly spooky descriptions of his encounters with ghosts or demons or psychic manifestations or whatever they might be.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks blends a horror story with a psychological thriller. The story’s theme, I think, is that there is a thin line between being possessed and self-possessed. There may always be demons within us that need to be exorcised, including our uncontrolled egos, our vanities and narcissistic tendencies.

Jack’s self-absorption is so extreme that it detracts from the story’s pleasure — although admittedly, you only need to watch the news to be deluged with stories that feature extremely self-absorbed people who, like Jack, believe they are above criticism. Still, the plot is carefully constructed, muddling together different theories of the paranormal in a way that leads to surprising revelations that resolve the story in a sensible way while leaving room for ambiguity and alternate explanations (such as those drawn by Jack’s brother). And the book does have its scary moments, which is really all a reader can ask from a horror novel.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.