Ginger Nuts of Horror
Jasper Bark has been a busy boy. Fresh off the back of a string of releases (Novellas Run To Ground and Bed of Crimson Joy, as well as novel The Final Cut) all of which were well received around these parts, he’s also run a successful Indiegogo campaign to produce a Lovecraft inspired horror comic, and become an integral part of Crystal Lake publishing’s Patreon campaign. We decided a catch up was long past due.
Ginger Nuts of Horror: Firstly, thanks for agreeing to chat with us again - I imagine your schedule must be quite hectic at the moment.
Jasper Bark: About as hectic as a homicidal maniac in a forest full of horny teens. That’s par for the course for writers these days though. Writing for a living has changed a lot over the past few years, mostly in response to the changes in publishing. When I started out, about fifteen years ago, the job was very similar to being a freelance service provider, such as a web developer or a graphic designer. These days you’re more like an artisan trader, so you spend as much time engaged in selling and marketing your work as you do in writing it.
One of the great things about writing horror, however, is that there’s a very vibrant and active community supporting the genre. One of the things that keeps me busiest, is keeping up with the hundred’s of relationships I’ve built, over the past few years, with fellow horror fans, many of whom are kind enough read my books and support me.
GNoH: Let’s start by talking about The Final Cut. As I noted in my review, there’s a huge volume of ideas at work in this story. Can you recall where the initial seeds of inspiration for this tale came from?
JB: The initial nub of the idea came to me while I was working on another novel, one that I haven’t actually completed yet. The novel contains several stories within stories, and I came up with the idea of two filmmakers who stumble upon a snuff film, decide to build a movie around it, then end up auditioning an actress who’s the spitting image of the snuff film’s central victim, as one of the internal stories of this other novel.
It soon became obvious though, that the story was more complex, and demanded to be more than just a fictional interlude in a longer narrative. I’d accepted a commission for a chapbook, from Knightwatch Press,and I thought that this story would be ideal for an eight to ten thousand word tale. The more I worked on it though, the more it grew, and my ten thousand word tale soon became a forty thousand word draft, and then a sixty thousand word novel. The more it grew, the more potential I saw in it. The hardest thing was relaxing and letting the story sprawl and outgrow my original conception of it.
GNoH: How has this evolution of the story impacted that original novel idea? Will it still incorporate The Final Cut, or have you removed that part as it became it’s own beast?
JB: The original novel won’t incorporate The Final Cut. I removed it because it evolved into a different kind of beast entirely. They are both part of the same story cycle though, and the way The Final Cut developed, has influenced the course the other novel will now take. It’s also shown me how to deepen the theme of the other novel and has revealed new directions for the story cycle to take.
GNoH: Sounds exciting! How big do you see this cycle getting? Do you have an overall blueprint or master plan, or is the whole thing just happening on the page?
JB: There is a plan, but it is still in a gestation period. There are a lot of things I want to explore, but it’s also fun sometimes to be surprised by your work, and to enjoy the happy accidents that occur. Like many authors I like to go on a journey of discovery myself, without all the answers when I start out.
As to how big I think it’s going to get, in my mind I see another three novels and at least two collections of stories in what will be the final canon. One of these stories has just been published by Black Shuck Books in the anthology Great British Horror 1 - Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a novella, which takes up nearly a third of the book, called Quiet Places. My novella aside, I would recommend that everybody grab Green and Pleasant Land as it’s a phenomenal anthology, certainly a year's best.
GNoH: You’ve mentioned this before, where stories have unexpectedly grown on you. How do you manage that process, in a world of word length commitments etc? Did you write a separate ‘chapbook’ length story for the commission? If so, did you have to put The Final Cut on hold to do so?
JB: I didn’t have to write a new story. As luck would have it, a short story I was writing for another anthology grew into the novella Bed of Crimson Joy and the anthology changed publishers. Both the new publisher, and editor, of the anthology said they were amenable to accepting a reprint in the place of Bed of Crimson Joy which was now too long for them. This meant I could offer Bed of Crimson Joy to Knightwatch Press, who’d commissioned the novella. They were then bought out by Black Shuck Books, who finally brought out Bed of Crimson Joy. Such is the intricate and ever changing world of Indie Horror publishing.
GNoH: There’s several genre shifts in the tale, from crime to body horror to magical realism. Did you plan the novel with those shifts in mind? What changes did you make your writing technique with each shift to bring the reader with you?
JB: I’m not sure I planned the story with the genre shifts in mind. The novel grew very organically, as befits a story about storytelling, I suppose. It was one of those instances where the story is more intelligent than its author and knew far more than I did. I’m not meaning to sound all mystical here, but many writers encounter this, I’m sure it must have happened to you at some point too.
The story kept growing as I wrote and rewrote it. As it grew, it kept on taking different facets from different genres and subgenres. This wasn’t planned initially, but as it happened I became increasingly aware of it. When I did become aware of it, and began to embrace it, the techniques I employed were all focused around making the transition between each genre as seamless as possible, so nothing jarred the reader out of the action. This was especially the case when things started to get more mythic and conceptual.
GNoH: You make some very strong statements in this book about how fiction and storytelling should work. To what degree do the views your characters express reflect your own on this subject?
JB: Although there are many statements, there’s also a lot of debate. I didn’t want to write a giant rant, so various characters express different views of mine, many of them contradictory. Interestingly, I always find it easier to write a character who holds opposing views to my own, I’ve no idea why that is, so those character who are most eloquent are probably not expounding my views.
One of the things I wanted to explore was the abandonment of plot in modern literature. From the 50s and 60s onwards, academic thought has tended to view plots, in literary fiction, with great suspicion, if not outright hostility. Plots have come to be seen as something of a contrivance and a barrier to presenting life as it really is, with no conclusive endings and no neat conclusions. Because of this, we’ve lost a lot of the artistry that’s involved in crafting and fashioning a really great plot with a most satisfactory ending.
A lot of literature these days is written for, and by, academics. One feature of academic writing, especially academic writing about literature, is that you should never make a conclusive statement, certainly not without any reference or qualification. You can be harshly judged for this, so it’s better to refer to other people’s ideas rather than express any of your own. This has spilled over, to a great extent, into modern literature, which is principally about language. There are little or no ideas expressed, all we have are the language of ideas and the language of fiction without the actual appearance of either.
As our genre continues to gain a tiny modicum of respectability, those among our ranks who want serious attention, will try to follow a similar path (some might unkindly say: ‘ape their betters’). This has resulted in a lot of horror that’s big on atmosphere, style and characterisation (all of which are important) but rather lacking when it comes to either a plot or a satisfying ending. This is one of the issues I tried to explore in The Final Cut.
GNoH: Well, now we’re getting to something we’ve spoken about privately: the ‘literary’/genre divide - or, within the Horror writing community itself, what I’ve thought of as the ‘literary/pulp’ divide…
JB: Yes, people have also referred to it as the ‘Quiet Horror’/’Extreme Horror’ divide too. I think it’s a rather erroneous divide, because most readers I know, within the genre, enjoy reading writers from all parts of the spectrum. And I think it is a glorious spectrum of horror rather than a straight split between two separate camps. What’s more, many quiet/literary writers dip their toes in the pulpier end of things from time to time and the more extreme splatterpunks also like to try their hands at something more atmospheric and literary too.
From a personal perspective, I read widely both within and without the genre, I’m just as happy reading Donna Tartt, Flannery O’Connor or Jonathan Franzen as I am reading Richard Laymon, Laird Barron or Adam Nevill or a hundred other authors.
I’m fascinated by the visceral power of horror when it’s at its pulpy best. Graphic sex and violence can be extraordinarily gripping, and even moving, when they’re well written. However, I also believe that horror can be as ambitious and self aware as any contemporary literature. I’m not alone in this belief either. You only have to look to authors like Jack Ketchum, Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite to see that. In fact I’d go as go as far to say that you can probably trace this fascination with dark violent subject matter and deep sentiments all the way back to Poe himself, and the beginning of modern horror.
GNoH: There’s a strong mythology running behind all three of these tales. What drew you to this as a linking concept? And how do you go about constructing a plausible mythology?
JB: I have always wanted to create my own mythology. I came across some old notebooks in my parents’ attic recently, stolen school books in which I’d scribbled my early stories. The oldest dates back to when I was eleven or twelve years old, and it mainly consists of my notes on the mythology I wanted, even then, to build. So it’s probably the one writing ambition I’ve held the longest.
In a previous interview, about my collection Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts, you and I discussed the story How The Dark Bleeds. You asked me if I intended to do anything more with the mythology in this story. This set me thinking, and I realised there was definitely a lot more that could be done with it, and that maybe this was the mythology that I’d always wanted to build. I didn’t want to make the mythology the central part of any plot though. I love the way that Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany built their mythologies through little scraps, and tiny mentions, scattered throughout their tales, so I elected to do the same with my own.
I think the main way you go about constructing a plausible mythology is to concentrate first on the philosophy and the symbolism behind your mythos. In their excellent, but rather dense, book Before Philosophy, the authors Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobson argue that before modern science and philosophy: “man’s speculations, when they turned to the perennial problems of self and the universe, were expressed in myths.” Myths were the original repository of all our knowledge and beliefs, that’s what gives them such power, so many millennia later.
These days allegory is a dirty word, thanks to Tolkien who claimed to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”. I think Tolkien was talking specifically about the didactic nature of allegory and the way that it allows for only one interpretation. However, I think many of his admirers have taken his aversion as an excuse to chase any and all deeper meaning from modern fantasy and weird fiction.
It’s also fashionable these days to say: “sometimes a dragon is only a dragon”, meaning it represents nothing more in a myth or fable than a scaly monster. For the modern mind, not schooled in the subtleties of ancient thought, it is ‘only a dragon’. To the ancient mind, a dragon was never ‘only a dragon’. A dragon could be the dangers that lurked on the uncharted territory of a map. It could be the divine power of the feminine, as realised in ancient, goddess worshipping snake cults, such as those of Crete, which were later suppressed by patriarchal religions. As seen in the symbolism of St. George and the dragon, or St. Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland. It could even be the geomantic forces of the Chi, as symbolised by many Chinese dragons. A dragon can be all these things and many, many more. Even if the dragon doesn’t symbolise any of these things in a specific story, it couldn’t ever extricate itself from the huge web of associations that culturally surround it, for the ancient mind that created our first mythologies.
However, as important as all this symbolism is, it is only the underpinning of your tale, as is any philosophy you want to explore. Primarily, the reason we still read and discuss mythology is because they’re excellent stories, that are well constructed and we can still identify with the characters and their motives, millennia later. They also hold up to multiple readings, both by the ancient reader and the modern, there is nothing didactic about them. So when you’re constructing any mythology yourself, that’s something you have to bear in mind. Start with a great story, one that can mean many things to many people, but still maintain its profundity.
GNoH: As with the pulp/literary thing above, it’s always struck me that the notion of symbolism Vs. literal interpretation is (or can be) a false dichotomy. Like, in The Final Cut, the film they’re trying to make is a symbol of their own quest as artists, and represents their own struggle with creative ennui and the conflict between the desire for commercial success and the desire for artistic fulfillment - but it’s also a ‘real’ film they are actually trying to make. The symbol is also the thing it is, in other words...
JB: Absolutely, any symbol should have more than one function in the story. There are many agendas that drive a good narrative. On a more objective level, where your book may have a statement to make, there’s the thematic agenda. This is where your symbolism is at its most effective and most important. It’s the part of the story where it’s most a symbol and least the thing itself.
On a subjective level, where you engage your reader and hook them into the story, there’s the plot agenda. Symbolism does feature in a plot, but only in the ways that it adds depth to the events and makes the reader want to read more of the story. Plot is all about keeping your reader’s eyes glued to the page, so they miss lunch hours, dinner dates, and even bathroom breaks, because they can’t put you down. Symbolism can add to this, but it’s not the most important factor.
On a personal level, where readers really begin to identify with your characters, every symbol is important, in a different way, to every character. It tells you about their needs and wants, their hopes and goals and their personal philosophies on life. Symbolism is important in getting the reader to understand, if not empathise, with the character and all the decisions they make during the course of the book. So on that level, what the thing, as a symbol, means to the reader is very important as well.
In The Final Cut, the film that Sam and Jimmy are trying to make is also a story within the story itself. There are a lot of parallels between the plot of the film and what’s happening in Sam and Jimmy’s lives. The plot of the film is also based on one of the most ancient Mesopotamian myths: Inanna’s Journey to the Underworld. So it also operates as a symbol of the story, within the story that also contains symbols of its own. But that’s just me trying to be clever, and that’s always been my undoing.
This conversation has taken an interesting turn, should we get back to the books, or is it time for my existentialist dick joke?
End of part 1! Tune in next week for a discussion of Run To Ground and Bed Of Crimson Joy, as well as what the rest of 2016 holds for Jasper Bark (and possibly an existentialist dick joke)...