Stuck On You is a collection of short stories and novellas by Jasper Bark.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Yes, these are dark tales. In them, gruesome and grotesque things frequently happen to people. Some will make you question the limits of human endurance. Some will make you question what you had for lunch, or kill your appetite stone dead. My experience of extreme horror writing is fairly limited, but if there’s stuff that’s hugely more extreme than these tales, I’m certainly not in any hurry to read them.
However, there’s something which for me is far, far more important than the darkness of these tales: namely, they are very, very good. Throughout this collection, Mr. Bark demonstrates a considerable level of ability to write in different voices, to tell vastly different tales. There are superlative first person narratives (Taking The Piss and Haunting The Past), tales from both sides of the Atlantic, one short story (Mouthful) told, appropriately enough, entirely through dialogue, and even a trip back in time, albeit it to the weirdest Wild West I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Bark moves between these prose styles and voices effortlessly, with the skill of a true storyteller, selecting the most appropriate or interesting mode of delivery, and then just nailing it.
Both Taking The Piss and Haunting The Past are especially well done in this regard – each first person narratives but with such different lead voices it’s hard to credit they come from the same mind. The foreword to the collection hints that the author may well have a theatrical background, which perhaps explains his uncanny ability to get inside the mind of a character. Haunting the Past is as inventive a ghost story as you’d expect from the title, with a delightful ending that evokes Lovecraft, and a surprising (and surprisingly deep) protagonist. Likewise, Taking The Piss is pretty much a master class in the short horror form – genuinely chilling, brutal yet fiercely intelligent, morally conflicted characters, and some exceptionally deft imagery call-back – this story is on my shortlist for best short horror story of 2014. And yes, okay – I wish I’d written it. It’s that good.
The novellas that bookend this collection are also both worthy of high praise. Stuck On You, the title piece, is a grotesquely delightful premise which Mr. Bark proceeds to mine for all it’s worth, skilfully interweaving flashbacks into the narrative. This one evoked some of Stephen King’s darker, more intimate survival horror pieces, though I doubt even he’d have picked quite so extreme a premise – and praise from me doesn’t come much higher than that.
Dead Scalp, the aforementioned Weird West tale, closes out the collection in fine form. It’s a jet black Western, with a set-up designed to exploit the tough, even hellish nature of life on the frontier, where violence is the only real law. However, the supernatural elements move the story way beyond that initial premise, to territories far darker, more gruesome, and ultimately deeper and more thoughtful.
So yes, Stuck On You is gross out horror, and yes, a strong stomach is required. But make no mistake, this is also deeply intelligent, skilfully written, intense and often angry horror, written by a storyteller of considerable skill, imagination, and talent. Stuck On You is old school good, and Jasper Bark is one to keep a very close eye on.
Jasper Bark finds writing author biographies and talking about himself in the third person faintly embarrassing. Telling you that he’s an award winning author of four cult novels including the highly acclaimed ‘Way of the Barefoot Zombie’, just sounds like boasting. Then he has to mention that he’s written 12 children’s books and hundreds of comics and graphic novels and he wants to just curl up. He cringes when he has to reveal that his work has been translated into five different languages and is used in schools throughout the UK to help improve literacy, or that he was awarded the This Is Horror Award for his recent anthology ‘Dead Air’. Maybe he’s too British, or maybe he just needs a good enema, but he’s glad this bio is now over. You can find Jasper on his website or YouTube channel.