Thursday, March 27, 2014

Open Grave

There is an old school plot device that works very well: protagonist wakes up in the aftermath of a serious crime with no memory of how they arrived in said predicament ... and sometimes cannot recall their very identity. It sets up an interesting chain of events: is the newly awakened person a victim of the crime or its perpetrator? Will they recall their identity in a blaze of revelation or will recollection take place over the course of the story? 

Such is the case in the opening frames of Open Grave... a brutal and harrowing scene involving District 9’s Shartlo Copley awakening in a wilderness pit chock full of dead bodies in various stages of decay. Above, a storm is raging – and our main man does not recall who he is or how he arrived. After escaping the soon-to-be-ossuary, the John Doe comes into even more mystery: a mansion full of five other occupants (a mute girl, a German and three other Americans) – all of whom are just as ignorant. Though each individual discovers an identification card, trust levels are frayed to nonexistent and the group will duel in a desperate game to piece together the enigma. 

And the enigma? In addition to the charnel pit, the entire backwoods property is surrounded by human beings in the throes of rigor mortis – some of them stapled to trees with barbed-wire, others perishing by additional agonies. And during it all, our strangers are slowly recalling in flashback and snippets what came before: a viral outbreak of some kind? Were medical experiments being performed on the compound? Were they friend or foe to each other? This is the second act – and it is here the accomplished traits of all involved begin to shine: superb direction, masterful editing, and a chilling, appropriate score. Though Shartlo Copley’s South African accent tries to bleed in at times, he still manages to hold his ground for the most part and give a performance where it’s hard to envisage anybody else taking the lead.   

Despite a somewhat slow build up to the finale, we have here a refreshingly original set-up. It’s bleak (the tone gaudy and liquorice stained) and it’s suspenseful. Most of all it is leagues ahead of director Gonzalo L√≥pez-Gallego’s previous Hollywood effort Apollo 18. With Gonzalo now setting up an impressive shop in the science fiction and horror genres, the only crime here was Open Grave receiving little to no theatrical release.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Bring Jasper Bark to Justice Blog Tour

A few short weeks back Jasper Bark burst into this reviewer’s consciousness with a little novella entitled Stuck On You. To say that it was an utterly disconcerting story is an understatement – but it’s also the grandest compliment I can espouse. For all too often we are spoon fed horror of the modicum, horror of the banal, and because there is nothing else in the merchandise window we give it faint praise. Since reading Stuck On You, more of the man behind those words has emerged. And though we have here a writer who composes seemingly without conscience, we also have an intelligent and humorous individual who cares about his chosen genre and works hard behind the scenes for the collective tribe. So sit back, relax, and hear some of what Jasper has to say.

Do you plot your stories or does it just unfold before your eyes?

If I’m honest, it’s a little of both. I usually spend a lot of time plotting in advance but sometimes a story gets impatient with me and tells me to just sit down and write the damn thing. Even when I’ve plotted something quite tightly the story will often surprise me by taking unexpected turns. There is always a journey of discovery as you uncover the first draft, even if you think you know where you’re going. One of my favourite jokes goes: ‘Q: How do you make God laugh? A: Tell Him your plans.’ Bearing that in mind, I suspect you would probably have your novel in uncontrollable fits of giggles if you were to show it your chapter breakdowns.

Have you ever written something so truly, deeply frightening that you scared yourself?

If you’re going to successfully scare your readers you need to be able to scare yourself. You need to probe those parts of your psyche that you’re normally too afraid to explore. You have to confront those irrational impulses and deep seated phobias, that fester away under the skin of your mind like an abscess, and use your fiction like a scalpel to lance them and bleed off the poison. If it works for you, it will work for a fair number of your readers.

One story that did deeply disturb me was How The Dark Bleeds. The idea for the story originally manifested in a graphic novel I was pitching to an American publisher. One of the subplots contained a concept that increasingly unnerved and disturbed me. It grabbed hold of the darker side of my imagination and tortured it incessantly, until I was both in love with and terrified of the concept all at once. I had never seen this idea anywhere before and I knew I had to write about it. The only problem was, as amazing as this concept was, the graphic novel I was pitching was better off without it. So it was with great reluctance that I took it out.

At around the same time I was stuck for an idea for the short story I was contracted to write for the anthology For the Night is Dark. Well not so much stuck, I had plenty of ideas, it’s just that none of them were as good as I thought they ought to be. The pay for writing short stories is frankly lousy, so I always figure that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing one, it better be something I really want to write.

Then I remembered the concept that enthralled and unsettled me, the one I’d put in the bottom drawer. If anything, it had grown stronger since I’d dropped it into fictional suspended animation. I found it had been waiting for me and it wanted to take me to places far darker than my fiction had ever been before. It forced me to confront and record the taboos I’d previously shied away from and  to enter those territories I’d always thought of as ‘off limits’ - even as a horror writer.

The experience of writing this story was both exhilarating and excruciating. There were several moments during its composition when I wondered not only if I wanted to finish it, but whether or not I wanted to write another piece of horror fiction as long as I lived. Ultimately, I did live to tell this tale and I will certainly tell others.

With hindsight, I’m glad that I did. The story turned out really well. It scared my publisher and made my editor queasy. It’s going to be collected in Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts the short story collection I have coming out in June from Crystal Lake Publishing.

Do you think horror has a purpose, above giving people a comfortable, entertaining scare?

I really do believe it has. In my opinion the best horror stories use the weird and other-worldly as a metaphor for a deeper or more personal truth. I also think that the world is quite a scary place at the moment and because of this the tropes and motifs of horror are some of the best ways of addressing the contemporary world. A lot of the horror writers coming up at the moment seem to be interested in social commentary in the same way that the New Wave and the early Cyberpunk writers previously used science fiction as a vehicle for social comment.

Stuck on You:

What were you thinking when you took an urban legend and turned it into a delightfully twisted story called Stuck on You?

Mostly - “Gee, I bet this will make ’em toss their cookies” I wasn’t actually sure it was an urban legend when I stumbled across it on an obscure forum while researching something else. The person posting it seemed to think it was a true story. In fact the tale first appeared on the Darwin Awards site, which is devoted to deaths that are so dumb the victim is given an award for not muddying the human gene pool with their decided lack of smarts. So there’s some debate as to whether it actually happened or not (my guess is definitely NOT).

It was one of those little snippets of information that stuck to the seamy underbelly of my imagination and wouldn’t let go until I wrote a story to get rid of it. Taking the Piss, another story that’s collected in the forthcoming collection: Stuck on You and Other Prime Cuts, was just the same. It was inspired by something hideous I read about that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I sometimes create stories as little traps for the vile and hideous notions that infest my psyche, so I can be done with them and pass them onto my unwary readers. Think of it as a public service.

Stuck on You goes to some pretty extreme places, did you ever worry that you were going too far?

All the time. The fear for a writer working on something like Stuck On You is that you’re going to lose half your readership. That what your describing is going to gross them out so much they’ll throw the story down in disgust. So I would try and slowly ease the reader into each new incident that befalls the main character Ricardo. I would build to a gross climax then scale it back a bit. The thing about the story is that just when you think it’s gotten as low as it can go I’ll find a new depth to plumb, but you have to let up a bit in between. The intense levels of eroticism helps with this as did the black humour. Many readers have said they squirmed while reading it, or felt sick, but most have also said they laughed too, which is good because there is a strong element of slapstick in the story.

Why should people read Stuck On You?

Because it’s the sickest, filthiest and most inexcusable thing you’ll read all year. If you think you’ve read everything in horror think again this will take you to an all time low. It’s the ultimate guilty pleasure, the sort of book you have to read with one hand free, partly to hide behind and partly to do other things with.

And there you go. Everything I said about the man is true. However, if you don’t believe me below is an entertaining clip where you can meet the man yourself:

Way of the Barefoot Zombie

And to learn more about this upcoming release, please visit:

Crystal Lake Publishing

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Banshee Chapter

During the cold war, an intelligence branch of the United States government known as the CIA became heavily engaged in programs dedicated to mind and thought control – the largest of which is now universally known MKUltra.
In this secret project, the US government used normal citizens – habitually without the individuals consent – to test a wide range of psychotropic drugs ... in particular LSD. Though the authoritarian experiments here were frightening enough in and of themselves, even more alarming is the never documented human cost: the men and woman who vanished into the ether suffering psychosis, delusions, insanity, and everything in between. Just what stories will the general public never know? What waking visions and nightmares were some of these people privy to?  

With such a rich store of historical data here up for grabs, it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to mine it fictitiously on celluloid. Not only has first time director Blair Erikson done just that, he has taken the above elements and fused them with a score of other motif’s including HP Lovecraft (in particular his story The Beyond), experimental radio broadcasting, and real life characters fictionalized for the purpose of storytelling. On paper this seems like a heady mix – one that could ultimately implode. But Banshee Chapter comes equipped with just enough unique sophistication and snatches of brilliance that at times the viewer will be left reeling.

Make no mistake; this is a ‘footage’ film. But ‘found footage’ has, thankfully, been left off the menu. What we have instead is a kind of a hybrid excursion inter-spliced with genuinely creepy stock recordings of real and fictionalized MKULtra experiments.

Present day, and James Hirsch has decided to take an old school MKULtra concoction himself ... and film proceedings. With his friend at the camera’s helm, it isn’t long before a sinister radio-broadcast takes up a chorus – along with an all pervading malaise that something altogether alien is just outside the door and homing in on James’s thoughts. After James’s mysterious disappearance, it then falls to his old college friend Anne to pick up the pieces. A present day reporter, Anne remains at the crux of the narrative – guided by a desire not only to find James but to unravel some of the evidence acquired.

And it’s this evidence that leads her to counter culture writer Thomas Blackburn – a fictitious rendering of author Hunter S Thompson. Though at first Blackburn’s character feels somewhat unnecessary – if only because of the real life writer’s ardent worship – a viewer will slowly acclimatize: Hunter S Thompson, for all his eccentricity, was a man deeply rooted in the milieu on offer in Banshee Chapter: CIA investigations, hippy subculture, and a deep seeded paranoia of authority. After ingesting the drug herself, Thomas and Anne are led on a pursuit for answers ... a chase where monsters from another realm are always peeking just around the corner.

While some might be turned off by the low budget, we have at our core here a film made with great care. Not only are jump scares prevalent, but there is a whole elusive quality to proceedings that was such a pertinent part of Lovecraft’s work. The monsters – though intangible – haunt the narrative through subtle images and a radio broadcast that will preoccupy your dreams. Throw in the ‘true life factor’ and we have a film that will eventually go on to become a cult classic.