A Conversation With Jasper Bark

coverJasper Bark has produced some exciting works of horror fiction recently, most notably The Final Cut and Run to Ground from Crystal Lake Publishing and the erotic horror tale Bed of Crimson Joy from KnightWatch Press. I’ll have a review of Run to Ground here in the very near future and The Final Cut not long after but in the meantime, I recently had the opportunity to interrogate Jasper about all things horror. Jasper is both an extremely intelligent and sometimes over the top hilarious individual and this is one of the more enjoyable interviews I’ve done here because of his candid and engaging personality. Watch for my reviews, buy Jasper’s books, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

SK: For those readers who are unfamiliar with you, please tell us a little about yourself:

JB: I’m a writer of hideous and horrible things. The type of fiction your parents warned you about, terrible tales that scandalize sermon writers and bring hot sweats to Sunday school teachers. I’m talking about the type of books that make you feel good in all the worst kind of ways and bad in all the best. When you’re done reading them, you’ll never be able bleach the stains from your eyes or the images from your mind, but frankly friends, you’ll never want to. I’ll take you places you’ve never been before and show you things you’ve never seen, and that’s a money back guarantee.

Aside from being an industrious writer of horror novels and comics, I’m a lazy YouTuber you can see some of my efforts here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWRpGrqvFxc

In addition to that, I blog and run a regular Ghostwalk in the ancient Medieval town where I live in the UK. Prior to all this, when I lived in London, I was a stand up, a cable TV presenter and a film and music journalist.

I have an amazing wife and two incredible daughters, yet despite this I can’t seem to stay out of trouble for more than a few minutes at a time. I guess it’s hardwired at some genetic level or something.

SK: Before delving into creative writing, you were an editor and freelance non-fiction writer for several popular publications. What prompted the switch?

JB: I guess I got tired of working in a ‘semi-creative’ profession, which is how I would
categorize journalism. As a film and music, journalist more or less everything I wrote was a response to something, far more creative, that somebody else had done.

I spent a lot of time interviewing some of the most famous people on the planet at that time, and I was able to relate to them as a fellow creator, which helped no end in the interviews, but it did make me start to think that I was on the wrong side of the microphone. I realised I had somebody else’s dream job and I was going to have to bite the bullet, quit my job and start writing full time. I also decided that I ought to move to the country with my new family.

When I told my wife this, she was pregnant with our second child. It is to her eternal credit that I am still alive to write this. I spent the advance on my first novel moving us out of London and then found myself without an income and therefore with no way to pay for childcare or someone to clean the house. Suddenly that was my job, and instead of sitting in my study all day thinking beautiful thoughts, I was, in fact, a house husband with two small children to look after.

I’d gone from film premieres and back stage passes in the capital, to school runs and nappy changing in a rural backwater. Most of my colleagues thought I was out of my mind (or at least even more out of my mind than they had previously suspected), Eventually however, I sold another book, paid for some childcare and began to write my way out of domestic drudgery.

I was also a hell of a lot happier in the long run.

SK: After reading your bio on your website, it seems obvious that you have a unique and somewhat rebellious personality. Do you think that feeds or informs your creativity?

JB: As a rule, large organizations, hierarchical structures and any party that wants to control large amounts of people, tend to fear creativity. That’s because creativity tends to question and remake things. Creative people will study how something works then find a whole new different set of ways to achieve the same object, trying new working methods and even contemplating wholly new outcomes.

This scares anyone in power, because they don’t want you to question, they don’t want you to innovate, they want you to do what you’re told when you’re told to do it, and nothing more. Doesn’t matter that there may be a better way doing things, they just want remain in charge. This is why authoritarian political movements will always suppress the arts, through a combination of spending cuts and outright censorship.

It’s also why large corporations, though they pay lip service to innovation and hideous phrases like “blue sky thinking” and “thinking outside the box”, have discovered it’s not in their interests to employ the brightest and the best for their companies. Highly intelligent and creative people question systems and processes too much and threaten the position of those that manage them. So there’s been a huge move recently, within Human Resource management, to start employing people who are simply hard working and effective, but of mediocre talent, over those who are truly gifted and intelligent. Even in areas like Research and Development, where you’d think intelligence and creative would be a boon.

So what I’m essentially trying to say is that I think my creativity feeds and informs my rebelliousness. It’s why I got in trouble an awful lot as a child and as a young adult. It’s what makes me all too unemployable, especially within large organizations. So I guess I’ve been forced into a creative career due to my personality. Because if I wasn’t writing or performing for a living I’d either be homeless or in jail.

SK: You’ve been involved in a lot of creative endeavors over the course of your life. When
did you know that you wanted to write for a living?

JB: Probably from the age of five. There used to be a program on BBC TV (that’s our public service broadcaster in the UK) called Why Don’t You, which was actually short for Why Don’t You Switch off you Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Kinda catchy don’t ya think? The whole purpose of the show was to dissuade you from watching any more TV by showing you short films of kids who were having far more fun doing other activities. Can you imagine someone pitching that to the sponsors of a kid’s channel today?

Anyway, I was watching this tedious show, one Saturday morning at the age of five, and in amongst the short pieces on kids who collected stamps or went rock climbing was a feature on a group of kids who were making their own comics. All they needed were pens, paper, a stapler and some imagination.

It struck me instantly that I had pens, I had paper and could get my hands on a stapler. I also had more imagination than was healthy for a boy my age. That meant I  too could create my own comics! I don’t think any idea has ever appealed to me more in my life, either before or since. Every molecule in my body was vibrating with excitement.

From that moment on, I spent every spare second making comics. The obsession got so great that the following Christmas, my parents had to confiscate my pens and paper so I’d come and open my presents. I soon began filling stolen text books with stories and poems too. My abilities as an artist are limited to say the least, so increasingly I began to concentrate on writing and the stories got longer and longer.

As soon as I became aware that, one day, I would be fully grown and considered an adult, who would also have a job, I realised that I’d be doing what I’d always done as a child, namely write stories.

SK: Who/what have been some of your creative influences?

JB: There have been so many. Within horror I guess that Robert Bloch was a huge seminalcoverinfluence as was Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Stephen King, Clive Barker and H. P. Lovecraft all had a big impact on my view of fiction at an early age. Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell and Lisa Tuttle all showed me, in my early teens, how to take my own, personal fears and create fiction from them.

Outside of horror, writers who’ve had a big effect on my would be Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Jerome K Jerome, Philip K Dick, Nigel Kneale, J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Donna Tart, Flannery O’ Connor, James Ellroy, Derek Raymond and the wonderful Jonathan Franzen.

I’ll stop now otherwise I’ll fill this interview with other writers’ names.

SK: What is it about horror fiction that attracts you?

JB: There are so many things about horror that attract me. I think the one key thing that attracts me is that it’s an imaginative medium and my imagination has always been slightly out of control. Unlike other imaginative genres, such as science fiction or high fantasy, horror doesn’t take usually place in some far distant or near future, that is different from ours, or some mythical world, with a wholly different geography, populated by other races. It can take place there, of course, (that’s the great thing about horror it can occur anywhere) but usually it doesn’t.

The scariest things we can think of, happen to people just like us, who might even be us, and live lives much like our own. That’s why horror, more often than not these days, takes place in our everyday world. That means as a writer, I can be as imaginative as I like, but I can also write about the world around us.

The things that a person, or a culture, is most afraid of, tells you more about them than anything else. It shows their stresses and fracture points, their vulnerabilities and by showing the things they hope won’t happen, it shows the things they most hope will. This means that horror fiction is a great medium for studying the whole of the human condition.

What’s more, as horror often (but not always) deals with the paranormal, it’s a great way of exploring the nature of reality – what it is, what it constitutes and how we define the term ‘real’. Because there is nothing as scary as the thought that everything we considered ‘real’ about our lives, and the world around us, is wrong, and the reality we’ve been living in is all a lie. Many great pieces of horror fiction have been written around that conceit.

SK: If you could give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

JB: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, for any reason whatsoever, EVER start a story with the weather.

Even if it is a dark and stormy night when your story takes place, and even if the wind is whistling through the tree tops, there is no reason to tell the reader this. Not only is it a stupid and intensely clichéd way to begin a story, it is also very lazy and very boring. It’s lazy because you’ve gone for the most overused type of opening in fiction and that shows you haven’t put any thought into it. The purpose of your opening is to grab the reader’s attention and hook them totally into the story. No one is ever gripped or scintillated by a description of the weather. The single most boring conversation you can ever have with anyone is about the weather. Don’t bore your reader before you’ve even begun the story.

Start with your main protagonist (or one of your main protagonists if there are several) and open at the tipping point of your story, where all the events that make up your plot are just about to kick off. That way your story will start at a brisk pace, or at least a pace that will engage the reader, intrigue them and encourage them to keep reading. Alternatively, if you want a challenge, you could start from the single most interesting moment in your whole story, filling in everything that has gone before in flashback, as the story races (or slowly builds if you prefer) to its climax. You can, if you like, even start with the penultimate scene and then go back and let the reader know everything that has happened up to this point before hitting them with your ending.

Whatever you do, stay well clear of the weather. There is no better way to signal to the reader that you’re untalented and/or an amateur than beginning your tale with dull slice of meteorological description.

SK: What do you think is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

JB: It’s a piece of writing advice that I still hear being trotted out by editors all the time and it is utter bilge. Mainly because it’s business advice that they’re trying to pretend is writing advice.

The advice is that: ‘Every story, no matter how large, can be summed up in a single sentence. Start with the sentence and them work your way up from there.”

There isn’t space on the whole internet, let alone in this interview to go into why that is one of the stupidest thing any human being has ever said, however, I can tell you what they really mean and why there is a grain of wisdom lurking somewhere in there.

Editing is a highly pressured job, even more so in today’s downsized publishing world, and few editors have the time to keep on top of all their obligations, let alone make their way through the Everest-like submissions pile. They probably only have one hour a month to tackle it and that hour is probably their lunch hour. If they have an hour and there are an average of 400 submissions to read, that means they probably don’t have time to read more than a single sentence of each submission. So most of their decision is made on that one sentence.

If it’s a good sentence they’ll put your submission on a smaller pile, whose synopses they will read at a later date. If your synopsis is good they’ll move your submission to an even smaller pile whose sample chapters they will read as, and when, they get time. So, if you want them to read your full submission, you have to write a really clever, funny, attention grabbing sentence. Don’t worry about summarizing your whole novel, just make sure you make vague reference to its themes or plot, the important thing is, to intrigue, amuse and engage the editor, so she or he will read your whole submission.

SK: Let’s delve into your work some. The two stories in Run to Ground and the novel, The Final Cut are part of what you call the Qu’rm Saddic heresy. Please tell us a bit about that.

51omjhvzxlJB: The Qu’rm Saddic Heresy is an ancient set of blasphemous beliefs that date back to the very beginning of religion, some would say even further. Some of its adherents claimed that all religions were simply off shoots of its original teachings.

We don’t know when it began, but we do know that as far back as Ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, followers of the heresy were being persecuted and it was considered an ancient religion even then. There are no surviving texts and all we have are tiny little references to it in obscure classical and medieval texts, it was also briefly popular in the early renaissance. It was claimed that if the Qu’rm Saddic Heresy’s beliefs were allowed to proliferate, they could alter the consciousnesses of every being on the planet. Although no-one knows quite how or what that really means.

No one really writes about it these days, maybe because of its obscurity or because of its infernal reputation, it certainly wasn’t part of any occult revival of the 20th century. I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by forbidden beliefs though, so I began to weave tiny little scraps of knowledge about the Heresy into my work. It also allows me to bring all kinds of goddesses and monsters to the reader’s attention, that they’ve never encountered before.

The Final Cut takes place in the modern world of Indie horror film making, it’s a novel that examines horror as a genre and why we want to read/write and watch/film horror stories. It takes in everything from modern atrocity to ancient myth, so the Qu’rm Saddic Heresy lurks ominously beneath the surface of everything in the novel, hopefully giving it all a terrifying but transcendent extra dimension.

Run To Ground is more of a full on monster romp, featuring a graveyard whose very ground is possessed by malign and murderous beings, not to mention some particularly bizarre personal fetishes. The Qu’rm Saddic Heresy is a key ingredient in this story, and the back up story How The Dark Bleeds, because it brings a darker dimension to both tales and an ancient sense of awe and wonder.

Both of these books are part of a proposed story cycle that will include several other novels and many short stories. In fact Black Shuck Books have just released Great British Horror 1 – Green and Pleasant Land containing a novella of mine (that takes up nearly a third of the book) called Quiet Places that’s also a continuation of the mythology and part of the Heresy story cycle.

SK: Talk a bit about Bed of Crimson Joy, which is billed as an erotic horror story. What’s the story behind that one?

JB: A year or so ago, my family and I went away on vacation and left our house in the care of a couple of elderly neighbours who watered our plants and fed our cats. As we were pulling away, I had one of those ‘what if’ moments where my mind wanders to strange places. I couldn’t help thinking: ‘what if, the moment we’re gone, our two lovely neighbours, who can’t do enough for others, decide race up stairs to our bedroom and start rutting like wild animals on our freshly laundered sheets?’

The idea really unsettled and disturbed me, which set me to thinking – ‘there’s a story here, if it disturbs me, it will undoubtedly disturb others. I also threw in an ominous fourposter bed, with erotic wood carvings and woven tapestries that keeps reappearing no matter how many times it’s dismantled and thrown away, in a slow building story of paranormal vengeance with an ending that’s sure to get you right where you live.

SK: Is erotic horror something you have a passion for? Do you see yourself writing much more in that vein?

JB: I have a passion for just about every branch of horror. I love the visceral power of pulp horror, the type of horror  that’s considered little better than porn, not only because of the way it revels in graphic sex and violence, but also because it isn’t always that well written.

However, there’s no reason why you can’t approach sex and violence with as much intelligence and craft as you might approach atmosphere, theme or characterization. That way you can harness the power that pulp has, the ability to quicken your pulse and get your heart racing, but you can also provoke thought and engage the reader on other levels.

There’s often a touch of erotica in most of my work, so I’m sure it will pop up again, but that all depends on whether it’s relevant to the particular story I’m writing at the time.

SK: Any exciting publications or other projects that you’d like to tell us about?

JB: My Sci-Fi/Political Satire series Parassassin which was originally published in the excellent Aces Weekly, is being collected by Markosia and should be available in the new year.

I’m launching a new horror webcomic on my own website, it’s an homage to those great horror comics of yesteryear by EC, Warren and Skywald. You can read an exclusive preview of the first installment here: http://www.jasperbark.com/comic/bad-girls-guide-to-making-a-killing

Loads of other commissions and projects are in the pipeline, but I can’t talk about them just yet (what me vague?)

SK: You’ve been doing a lot of work with Joe Mynhardt and the good folks at Crystal Lake Publishing. What has that experience been like?

JB: Quite frankly it couldn’t have been better, Joe and the whole Crystal Lake team are incredibly professional and supportive and a joy to work with. They spend a lot of time working with you to get the text of any book absolutely perfect, using a team of editors and proof readers who all go above and beyond. They also provide a huge amount of promotional  and marketing support too. A class act all round.

SK: Anything else you’d like to share with us before we wrap up?

JB: I’ve just listened to the audiobook of my novella Stuck On You, read by the excellent Joe Hempel. Listening to my words, read by someone else, made me realise what an irredeemably sick and depraved individual I actually am. It’s out in a month or so so watch this space, and then you too will be able witness the depths to which a human mind can sink…

Thanks so much for having me Shane.

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