If you’re looking for a punchy horror/thriller mash up with a liberal dose of pop culture, then The Last Days of Jack Sparks is right up your alley. The one word I would use to describe this book would be contemporary. This generation, which so obsessively feeds off of online validation, will relate all too well to Jack’s self absorption, largely perpetuated by his fixation with curating his online persona. From his knee jerk reaction of documenting everything he does for his followers to the free floating skepticism he so brashly wears on his sleeve, there is a lot for Generation Y to identify with.
Jack Sparks is a louche journalist whose claim to fame is being the writer of some gonzo books which garnered him a lot of attention and social media followers, the latter being his biggest personal milestone. His first antic was to travel the whole of Great Britain on a pogo stick, followed by his ‘dedicated’ first-hand research which involved experimenting with every drug under the sun, leaving him an addict. Not only is his journalistic style an emulation of Hunter S. Thompson, Jack’s personality also seems to be inspired by his mercurial ways, particularly in how he revels in excess and takes enormous pride in being an arrogant prick.
He gets an idea for a new book, Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, which he is presumably writing to debunk all the occult theories by meeting proponents of supernatural to shoot holes in their claims. He begins by witnessing an exorcism in rural Italy, which he live tweets, much to the priest’s chagrin. He senses some otherworldly presence while watching the bizarre and frankly scary behavior of Maria Corvi, the teenager whose body the spirit inhabits. Yet, his derisive attitude gets the better of him and he chalks his doubts up to special effects that he thinks the church has employed to get a spot in his upcoming book. (I know. His megalomania is off the charts!)
Jack makes the pivotal mistake of laughing during the exorcism, which he proudly boasts to his online followers and this is where things go pear-shaped. Next on his itinerary is a pit stop in Hong Kong where he visits a combat-magician who dissipates an evil spirit. Here, again, he becomes conscious of some supernatural force at work but his bullheadedness compels him to sneer at it instead. During all this globe trotting, a spooky video inexplicably gets uploaded from Spark’s YouTube channel. The details of the video are genuinely eerie and clearly depict a sinister unearthly being in creepy setting. Jack’s account makes us think he believes someone to have hacked his channel as an attempt to malign his reputation. He seems to be nonchalant about the video and only later do we find out how obsessively he was investigating its whereabouts. He even goes to such lengths as emailing and meeting several Hollywood production houses, inquiring whether they are responsible for the video. While in Hollywood, he agrees to take part in the replication of a 70s experiment which proved that ghosts are not dead spirits, but manifestations of collective thoughts.
Centering a narrative around a despicable and brazenly offensive character like Jack is a gamble since it can turn off many readers. However, in Arnopp’s case it pays off as he deftly combines the obnoxious nature of Jack with Russell Brand-esque sardonic wit, resulting in a compelling narrative peppered with hilarious observations and caustic zingers. For instance, while waiting for the exorcism to commence, Sparks reflects how babies are scarcely exorcised and reasons that “Babies are so consistently insane that it’s hard to tell if they’re possessed, unless they start floating about.”
One of the highlights of the books is how well it illustrates addiction to social media and how it occupies center stage in our lives these days. The characters in the book consistently judge people they are meeting for the first time based on their followers count and virtual persona. During trials of the paranormal experiment, Jack notes how “our phones slow the process down” after there is an online report of a man who has climbed the Hollywood sign. As everyone scrambles to watch live feeds of the police negotiating with him, the whole group buzzes with creativity as they try to come up with the wittiest online comments. Jack proclaims “mine is by far the best, even if some spectators find it distasteful given that the guy jumps and dies.” Instances like these make one contemplate how people would rather be disparaging in an attempt to attract maximum Likes rather than act like decent (read: boring) human beings on social media. We are told Jack checks social media as a reflex – an observation that is resoundingly true for our generation.
As the story moves forward, the possibility of a menacing spirit who is out to get Jack looms larger. The procession of perplexing episodes escalate with one of them being deletion of all Jack’s social media accounts. To someone like Jack, who thrives on his social presence, this is nothing short of a catastrophe. This is one of the numerous little ways in which Arnopp has revamped the ghost story genre for the digital age. While in the classic ghost stories, one of the standard tropes was the cutting off of phone lines in a secluded house which warranted chills, here the mysterious deactivation of the target’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook serves as an effective counterpart. It also helps in getting Jack’s guards up as it gets increasingly difficult for him to deny the possibility that the spirit of Maria Corvi is out to get him to avenge the disrespect he showed at the exorcism. A cat and mouse game ensues between this supernatural force and Jack, resulting in collateral damage as the body count rises.
As Jack’s writing was published posthumously, quite obvious from the title of the book, it is edited and annotated by Jack’s brother, Alastair Sparks. Alastair cuts in at several points in the narrative, in the form of footnotes and interjections, to refute Jack’s reporting of numerous incidents. As Jack can hardly be called a reliable narrator, what for his addiction to drugs and his deluded sense of self, we are justified in doubting his veracity from the beginning. But we soon realize Alastair might have ulterior motives for taking such a keen interest in his brother’s last book, the same brother he had an estranged relationship with when he was alive.
The story goes from being facetious to genuinely scary and eventually reflective as Jack is forced to rethink his core beliefs, his general demeanor of antipathy, and reasons for his all-consuming ego centrism. However the prose stays limpid and never gets bogged down under the weight of the eclectic themes that Arnopp simultaneously deals with. The plot gets choppy at places and some twists are discordant but what is so gripping about The Last Days of Jack Sparks is the consistently engaging writing and the sheer acerbic wit which is definitely one of the high points of the book for me. This is a zany, sharp-witted and offbeat horror story. Highly recommended for pop culture aficionados, and those interested in reading unconventional fiction. Also, a perfect Halloween read.