JASON ARNOPP INTERVIEWED BY SCOTT K ANDREWS AT BSFA ON 26.10.16
Although Jason Arnopp is best known for his horror fiction, particularly his hugely successful debut novel ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’, there is a meta-fictional element to his work that eases it into science fiction. This interview was a perfect case in point. Interviewer Scott K Andrews had previously been interviewed by Jason in 2015; now, here was Scott interviewing Jason using a series of questions from Jason’s ebook ‘How to interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else’. This approach made proceedings somewhat unpredictable, like one of those adventure books from the 1980s where you have to choose which page to go to in order to find out what happens next. If that wasn’t meta enough for the discerning SF ironist yearning for the narrative/reality flip-flopping of Philip K Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Jason’s response to some of these questions was to consider editing the ebook, therefore altering choice and thus fate altogether. Phew!
Where did these tendencies all start though? ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’, which is a fictional memoir boasting both an unreliable narrator and an unreliable editor, begins with a boy being locked in a strange room. This event had a precedent in Jason’s own life; growing up in Lowestoft, Suffolk, he was locked in a room that served no functional or even architectural purpose and which Jason supposed was some sort of black hole, in only to give it a comforting scientific rationale. The outcome for him was less horrific than for Jack Sparks, but was suitably affecting that he remains grateful for the formative experience to this day.
It was a similarly dark imaginative appetite that got him into ‘Doctor Who’, who was then played by Tom Baker. ‘The Hand of Fear’ was particularly memorable, not so much for the Hand itself as for the scene where someone is crushed to death by a rock. Jason describes this experience as scarring his brain, although in a way that seemed to inspire instead of paralyse.
Even his career in journalism was shaded at the darker end of the spectrum. Rather than beginning with accounts of the village fete in the local paper, 16-year-old Jason responded to an ad in ‘Kerrang!’ music magazine for a writer to handle extreme forms of heavy metal. His letter included sample reviews and also made the Jack Sparksish observation that ‘Kerrang! knew absolutely nothing about thrash or death metal in a tone that seemed to work, despite missing the point that this deficiency was perhaps the reason for the ad in the first place.
Jason interviewed bands around the world for ‘Kerrang!’, and a key story from this period involved a photo shoot in 1998 for satanic extreme metal band Cradle of Filth at, of all places, the Vatican. It had not occurred to anyone to ask permission, so within moments of arrival they were surrounded by heavily armed, very angry guards who had the legal power to impose indefinite detention. Fortunately, one of the younger guards was amenable to the intruders’ situation and all would have been well had he not then asked what kind of music Cradle of Filth played. “Evil music,” Cradle of Filth replied, meaning that band, journalist and photographer only just managed to get away.
Throughout these escapades Jason wrote fiction in his spare time while simultaneously rising through the ranks at his beloved ‘Kerrang!’ to become a senior editor. He reached a point, when the permanent editorial position became available, where he had to make the decision about whether to continue with a secure job or take the riskier path of doing what he really wanted to do, which was write fiction.
His first commissions were not prose, however, but comedy for BBC Radio 4 show ‘Recorded for Training Purposes’. Jason advises that a self-employed writer should follow the path of least resistance, even though he doesn’t view sketch writing his forte and considers his sense of humour is too ridiculous for the mainstream.
Like any writer, Jason has a collection of books he has abandoned. Asked to describe one, he talked about an unfinished novel from the 1990s about a man who sets out to kill as many film censors as possible. This recollection prompted a discussion about today’s post on Jason’s blog, which stated that horror can never go too far. He maintains that the outcry over Monday’s episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ reveals that people fail to understand that the horror genre is a psychological dry run for the awful things that happen in life. We should not be shocked when horror horrifies us, and the only limits should be matters of taste. Jason has never seen anything he feels went too far, despite having seen some extremely horrible films. There are provisos; he agrees with labelling and classification but does not feel that those categories have any place in the content itself.
Jason’s love of all things horror gave him the opportunity to write his first novel tie-in. In 2005, he got a tip-off about which company had been awarded the franchise for a series of genre movie novelisations and proceeded to scorch a path to the editor and ask to write ‘Friday 13th’. He kept writing ideas; these became paragraphs, then an outline and finally he got to write the novel.
Having gained this experience, Jason admits he then abused his position as an interviewer at a ‘Doctor Who’ convention to collar one of the commissioning editors to ask if it was all right to send proposals for a ‘Doctor Who’ novel. Jason’s ideas were of suitable quality to be approved by the ‘Doctor Who’ management team and he was given the go-ahead to write ‘The Gemini Contagion’ featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor.
Jason’s unique career blend of journalism, fiction and drama then moved into a new phase with his script work for film director Dan Turner. The partnership worked for two reasons; one: by then Jason had been writing for at least the 10,000 hours required to be proficient at it; two: Jason and Dan thought along the same lines. For example, when Dan came up with the idea of the military capturing a ghost, Jason’s love of the concept enabled its development to the point where he scripted the movie eventually released as ‘Stormhouse’.
Although Jason enjoys scriptwriting, prose is his true love because with stories he is able to be writer, director, costume and lighting designer as well as the whole cast (I can only assume the soundtrack would err more towards Pantera than Abba). The downside of this creative supremacy is that no one else is to blame if anything goes wrong. Perhaps that is the source of his interest in meta-narratives like the self-published ‘A Sincere Warning About the Entity in Your Home’, which is a short story set in the home of whoever reads it. The story takes the form of a warning letter from the previous tenant, an ingenious idea that is limited by the amount of information available about a home the author has never visited. The initial solution was to include details common to all homes (bed, sink, toilet etc), while a later version invited readers to submit details of their homes to improve verisimilitude and make every version of the story unique. A stage beyond that was for people to provide the details of friends’ houses and arrange to have to story sent to them without their prior knowledge. Of course, like many cool ideas this one is open to abuse, hence the safeguard line at the end, which states that the story is fiction and includes the name of the person who bought it. Although someone dying of a heart attack while clutching one of these missives would be awesome advertising, Jason acknowledges that there are ethical considerations.
‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ feels like the best expression of Jason’s writing. While not a tie-in, it is made up of a variety of different points of view explored in different documents, from Jack’s last book, his journal that tells the truth behind that book, editorial notes by his brother and various witness accounts. It is not non-fiction either although it is presented as such, with a bleeding edge understanding of current social media mores. Real people like Roger Corman and the directors of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ feature in it, with permission from the individuals themselves. The overall effect is suitably disorienting and the climax uses an SF idea expressed with a wholly original and genuinely frightening supernatural device.
Jason’s initial idea for the book was of a man who discovers a scary YouTube video and becomes obsessed with finding the people who made it. Feeding into that narrative was Jason’s experience as a journalist, the way people on social media express a kind of certainty they don’t have in face-to-face encounters and the trend at all levels of the political spectrum towards instant opinion. Jason’s theory about this phenomenon is that as the world becomes more chaotic, people cling to opinions more than they used to.
It is certainly the case with Jack Sparks himself, a near parody of lad fiction whose obnoxious personality is a combination of over-confidence and ego. Such is his arrogance that he brings disaster on himself and those few who are close to him by laughing during an exorcism. Given the present real world political climate, it seems Jason Arnopp has once again flipped fiction and reality with uncanny accuracy.
My review of ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’