Jasper Bark has a problem staying out of trouble. Much to our entertainment, he's embraced this lifelong ambition to find trouble and use it as the content for his writing. His broad experience has given us incredible horror stories, comics, and even a children's "pop-up" book of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions. There's not much the man can't do, creatively speaking. Plus, he has a distinct, if somewhat warped, sense of humor. Interviewing him proved to be an adventure.
Let's start by dispelling a rumor. Do you really write in the nude?
Only when I'm trying to summon a Batrachian Daemon to spitball story ideas. But that has its drawbacks because those daemons are pretty possessive when it comes to their ideas, and there's nothing worse than being taken to court for plagiarism in a hell dimension. I mean, jeez, their legal system, talk about Kafkaesque.
Plus, as I'm constantly explaining to my wife, and the Mailman, technically it's not nudity if I'm dripping in Yak's blood.
You once performed (and maybe you still do) stand-up poetry. How did that happen? And did stand-up comedy have anything to do with it?
Did comedy have anything to do with it? I guess that would depend on how drunk my audiences were.
I have worked as both a stand-up and a performance poet over the years. Stand-up gigs pay much better than poetry gigs. At one point I combined the two, so I could cover twice the number of venues with the same set. Hence stand-up poetry.
I began stand-up when I was 15 years old. There weren't any comedy clubs in the North of England where I lived, which was very blue-collar. In those days, the comedy clubs were all down in the south of the UK, which was much richer. So, I played Working Men's Clubs, which had cheap beer and blue comedians. I used to skip school and hitchhike to the venues. Technically I was way too young to be in any of those places, but they let me in for some reason. I think it was because I looked about 12, had a potty mouth, and the customers found it hilarious.
I left school at 16, which you could do in the UK back in the '80s, and, having no qualifications and no other trade, I led a hand-to-mouth/gig-to-gig existence as a stand-up and actor throughout my late teens and twenties, eventually making quite a few 'blink and you'll miss me' appearances on TV. It was the closest I could get to running away to join the circus.
Some of your fiction runs to erotic horror, with a side of dark humor. Is this an intentional recipe (erotic fiction + horror with a dash of humor) or one that just comes naturally to you?
I think it's a little of both. Comedy, horror, and erotica are closely connected in a number of ways. First, they tend to be dismissed, or looked down on, by mainstream literature, so they're interesting places to do something subversive. Second, they're genres that want a specific reaction from their audience. At a basic level, they all involve building tension and then releasing it. For comedy the release is a laugh, for horror it's a scream and with erotica it's … y'know … I've always viewed horror as a particularly dark form of humor. It's a jet-black school of comedy where the laugh freezes in the throat and becomes a scream. Then again, most comedy involves people in awful and embarrassing situations too. We laugh as a way of distancing ourselves from their predicament because, if we didn't, we might shudder instead.
Horror is also an extremely stimulating and exciting genre, it gets the heart racing in the same way that a piece of really good erotica might. Think how much your heart races watching a slasher movie, and how much it races the first time you take someone to bed. There's always been a subconscious link between Thanatos (the death drive) and Eros. That's why, with the right person, horror films are surprisingly good date movies.
I love the visceral nature of all three genres. I love the fact that they provoke a reaction in the audience. I don't just want to make the reader think. I want you to laugh out loud in some passages. I want you to put the book down and jump on your lover, in others, and occasionally I want to make you lose your lunch. So that's why I tend to mix them up. I don't just want you to put down one of my books and say: "hmm, well, that was nice."
Your novel The Final Cut is about two filmmakers who are forced to watch a snuff film. The plot is a mix of crime, horror, and urban fantasy. I'm curious. How did you research this one?
In my late twenties/early thirties, I had more financial responsibilities. So, with no training, experience, or qualifications, I talked my way into becoming a national film and music journalist. I made many contacts in the British Film industry, at every level, and I even worked on a few films and commercials. So, I basically called up some old friends, and they introduced me to the latest generation of indie filmmakers, who were very willing to indulge me and answer my questions.
On the crime side, certain members of my family are up to their necks in all sorts of dodgy stuff. So, I've grown up with hard men and criminals of all stripes. Some of them have killed people, both in the military and outside of it, so a lot of the violence comes from things I witnessed growing up or things I was told about. You might say the stuff I write is a way of dealing with the trauma of that.
Regarding the Mesopotamian and mythological aspects of the novel, they have fascinated me for decades. I've not only read widely in the field, but I've also viewed many of the artifacts in museums and archeological sites in London, Paris, Naples, Berlin, Heraklion, and Ephesus.
Your story "Stuck on You" is a perverse and disturbing tale about a man fused to a corpse after sex (lightning was involved). Can I assume you're in need of a therapist?
Oh, most definitely, but being a jobbing writer, I couldn't afford a good one. But this is sometimes where the universe karmically pays you back. Because writing about all my inner demons is the best form of therapy I could hope for, and I get paid to do it.
As a reader of my work, you get to visit the mind that dreamed up all this twisted stuff. But, when you're done, you get to put the book down and go home. I have to live here all the time. So, I need some way of dealing with that.
Do you think horror writers use their fiction to exorcise their demons?
With a few notable exceptions, most horror readers and writers I've met are lovely, stable people. That's because we have a place to explore all our mental and emotional problems. Horror is a way of facing up to our dark sides, of admitting there are sides to our character that we're not proud of, that we have dark impulses and ideas. It's not only a way of owning up to the worst in ourselves, but it's also a way of playing with it, so it no longer has the same power over us. I think of it as dancing with my dark side.
Da Vinci, Jack Kirby, or Dr. Seuss?
Oh, now, this is SUCH a difficult question for me. You see, I wrote a best-selling children's book all about Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, that was translated into multiple languages. I've been to see his original paintings in galleries all around the world. I even looked a little like some of his subjects when I was younger. When my youngest daughter, Ishara, was three, she saw his painting of St. John in the Louvre, in Paris and perturbed the guards by running right up to it and shouting "Daddy!" Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I like to think we'd have gotten on rather well if we'd ever met.
On the other hand, my first professional fiction work was writing comic books, mainly for the European market. It was how I supported myself through most of the '00s. It is impossible to overplay Kirby's importance to the medium of comics. No other creator has had such an impact and influence on the medium, and it's doubtful they ever will. Every one of us who ever worked in comics worked in his shadow.
Then there's Dr. Seuss. I learned to read with Dr. Seuss. I had every one of his books as a kid, and I bought every one of his books for my kids when they were little. My daughters and I can still quote every word of Fox in Sox and Green Eggs and Ham. I've also—and this might surprise you—published quite a lot of children's poetry, but I bet it won't surprise you to find that Dr. Seuss was a big influence.
So, to summarize—I'd sleep with Leonardo, marry Jack, and shoot myself to save Dr. Seuss. Though I'm not sure my wife would be pleased with any of those decisions.
As I mentioned earlier, you often perform your work. You've written and performed an audiobook, Dead Air: Broadcasts from Beyond, about the dead telling their stories via radio frequencies. What can you tell us about creating an audiobook?
I'm certainly no expert on this matter. I worked as a vocal artist when I was younger, and I've recorded radio plays and spoken-word albums. Audiobooks weren't any different. For me, creating the audiobook involved me going into several recording studios in London and performing the stories into a microphone. In one instance, we had to use a booth inside a heavy metal radio station. This was fine while the tracks were playing, but the booth wasn't properly sound-proofed, and the DJ liked to rant and howl. Every time a track finished, I had to stop in mid-sentence while he screamed into the mic, then resume when the music started again because you could hear it in our booth.
Apparently, I'm a very demonstrative recording artist because the technicians and producers used to think it hilarious to see me hunched over the mic, pulling faces and waving my arms around as I told the story.
We did Dead Air, like one of those old-time radio horror shows, like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, and The Witch's Tale, complete with sound effects, original music, and a horror host. I'm not sure if it's my best work, but it's certainly an entertaining listen.
They're a bit overdone these days, aren't they? But it's a subgenre that just won't die. It's even more impossible to kill than its subject matter. Just when you think it's finally done, someone comes along with another clever re-invention and it lurches at you again, desperate to feed on your brains and your billfold.
My work in the subgenre came out just as the juggernaut was gaining traction at the end of the '00s. My novel, Way of the Barefoot Zombie, is set on a hidden Caribbean island where the billionaire entrepreneur, Doc Papa, has a captive colony of zombies. Here he teaches the aspiring super-rich how to free their 'inner zombies' by living with the zombies, dressing, eating, and even killing like them, so they can make a 'killing' on the market.
My graphic novel, Bloodfellas, is set in the prohibition era. The tag line is: When there's no room left in hell, the dead will turn to crime. It's set in Atros City, which is overrun with gangs of the undead, known as Ringsters, all under the iron fist of crime lord Papa Sang, who controls the supply of Ascension, a mystical drug that actually lets you visit heaven.
As you might have guessed, my take on zombies is not the least bit post-apocalyptic. I'm rather old school in this and go for a voodoo approach. While researching voodoo, I met some very interesting practitioners, took part in some wild ceremonies, and it has become a running theme in a lot of my work.
You've also written graphic novels, like ParAssassin. When writing a graphic novel, what is your approach? Do you visualize the story like a movie? Or see each scene as a panel in a comic? Just how does this work?
Comics writing is a separate and specific language. It's neither literate nor visual, but both at the same time. It has its own rhythm and grammar, and you need to learn this to first read and then write comics.
A comic script breaks the action down into panels, captions, and dialogue. It's a document that's intended to communicate the story to the art team, so they can tell the story visually. The art team can be one person, or it can be a penciller, an inker, and a colorist. All of them have specific tasks important to how the story is told and read. As a writer, you have to communicate not only character and setting to them but also movement and flow between panels. You have to do this in as few words as possible. Comics writing is all about the economy of text. You're not drawing the story, the artists are. Give them just enough to inspire them without bogging them down in detail.
The script is also a guide for the letterer who will put in all the word balloons and captions. If you want to do anything clever with these or include sound effects, you have to let them know that in the script, too.
Finally, a good script is there to make the editor aware that you know what you're doing so they will only intervene when they need to, to stop you from looking like an idiot—as all good editors do.
Coffee or tea?
I prefer a cup of cold crocodile tears, with two sugars, and one of those little paper umbrellas.
Your novella Quiet Places is described as "cosmic folk horror." What does that mean? Did you invent the genre?
Cosmic folk horror blends the conventions of 'folk horror,' typified by movies like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw, as well as books like Thomas Tryon's excellent Harvest Home, with the tropes of 'cosmic horror' that might be found in the work of writers like Clark Ashton Smith and Laird Barron. I think it was probably invented by Algernon Blackwood, back before anyone had ever combined the words 'folk' or 'cosmic' with horror. Another example of this sub-subgenre might be John Langan's excellent novel The Fisherman, which came out not long after Quiet Places.
You're having dinner with Harlan Ellison, H.P. Lovecraft, and Shakespeare? What are you guys talking about (aside from how much fun it is being dead)?
Harlan is a pretty contentious guy, so he's badgering Shakespeare about who really wrote his plays. Shakespeare is tight-lipped about this, but he does complain about the fact that the actors never speak his lines as they're written, and no one gets the humor in his clown scenes. I avoid saying: "that's because they're not the least bit funny," because I know Harlan will point this out at great length.
Howard (Phillips Lovecraft) refuses most of the food courses, preferring a little soup and dry bread and some malted milk for dessert. He does, however, keep filling his pockets with food from the other dishes to eat later. Harlan, Will, and I pretend not to notice this.
What are you working on now?
I've actually written four novels, all of which are awaiting publication. I can't say anything about one of them, but the other three are part of a trilogy called Draw You In that will be published early next year by Crystal Lake Publishing. The story is a love letter to the history of horror comics, but it also involves an epic road trip across multiple states and the secret history of the U.S. government.
I've also launched a horror webcomic, in which I appear as a horror host, the first episode of which can be found here:
And, last question, just for fun: what's your favorite "it's so bad, it's good" movie?
I think that would definitely have to be Troll 2. I watched the documentary Best Worst Movie, all about the underground phenomenon surrounding this film, first. Then I saw the movie itself was on Netflix. I asked my eldest daughter, Freya, if she'd like to watch it with me and she agreed.
We planned on watching the first ten minutes, rolling our eyes and then switching it off. But instead, we sat there with our jaws in our laps, unable to look away for the whole movie. It was utterly compelling for all the wrong reasons.
Freya loved it so much she made my wife and her boyfriend, Ralph watch it with us again. She forces poor Ralph to watch a lot of things, including all three High School Musical movies.
Poor Ralph, the things some people will do for love never ceases to amaze me.
Thank you for chatting with me Weldon, I've had a blast.
It's always fun talking with you, Jasper. I'm looking forward to reading your next opus!
For more about Jasper, visit his website at https://jasperbark.com/
To get a taste of slightly bonkers personae, watch a video promo for his novel Way of the Barefoot Zombie at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJAuN0GmZI8
Jasper is also a regular contributor to the new satirical current affairs site Coffee Beans and Conquest, which can be found on Patreon at https://jasperbark.com/a-bad-girls-guide-to-making-a-killing/
And, if you're truly interested, check out his story "Haunting the Past" that I published in Smart Rhino's anthology, A Plague of Shadows.
(This interview was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Suspense Magazine.)