At the risk of starting this review with a well-worn cliché, believe me when I say that The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp is the kind of book that you will definitely find hard to put down. Unless – like me – you get easily spooked, and try to banish the book under a pile of other, less frightening reads, hoping that its compulsive allure will not permeate under all that cover. Fortunately for me, it did, and while I had to stop myself from reading the book just before bedtime, I did feel compelled to read it quickly, with as few interruptions as possible as I became quickly sucked into the last, doomed days of journalist Jack Sparks.
As we learn from the outset of the book, Jack Sparks died under mysterious circumstances while researching and writing a book on the occult – or rather while on a determined quest to reveal any paranormal phenomena, religious or occult activities and beliefs as fabricated hoaxes. According to Sparks, there are only two reasons people claim to have witnessed supernatural phenomena: “1. They’re trying to deceive others. 2. They’ve been deceived by others.” Hot on the heels of his previous books, including “Jack Sparks on a pogo stick”, and “Jack Sparks on drugs”, Sparks is a true creature of the social media age – controversial, deliberately irreverent and with a social profile that spans across the globe, Sparks lives 24/7 on his social platforms. When his widely publicised attendance at an exorcism in Italy ends up with a hospitalised priest, and an unexplainable video with chilling footage appears on Jack’s YouTube account without his authorisation, Jack delves deeper into the world of ghost busters, apparition seekers and haunted places to prove the non-existence of ghosts, with some frightening consequences for himself and everyone around him.
First time novelist Jason Arnopp, whose background in journalism and scriptwriting includes credits for “Dr Who” and “Friday the 13th”, is – like Sparks himself – a sharp and lucid analyst of characters. The novel abounds with life-like, compelling secondary characters that Sparks meets along the way – characters that inhabit their own kooky scene, including the absolutely chilling portrayal of thirteen year old Maria Corvi, the possessed teenager at the centre of the exorcism. Other spooky phenomena, sometimes intangible, sometimes traditionally ghost-like, flit in and out of the narrative – but at the vortex of all the mayhem the character of Jack Sparks is probably the most terrifying.
Ruthless and entirely self-centred, Sparks can be seen almost as a ghost apparition of everyman’s ego – the part of us that wants to be “liked” on social media sites, the part that competes for air time while loudly exclaiming “Me! Me!”, demanding our fifteen minutes of fame as a birth right at a time where we are told that somehow our world is more egalitarian as we now have the ability to all participate in creating online content, creating a life that is potentially witnessed by many from afar. And reader beware: if you find yourself despising Jack Sparks in his self-centred search for glorification and acknowledgement (and you will despise him) you also may be left with a nagging feeling that Sparks throws up questions about the ego that drives us all.
The idea of the unreliable narrator underlines the ambiguities of this novel – other witness accounts and statements that are dispersed amidst Jack’s ever changing first person narrative (including Jack’s dubious sounding brother Alistair, whose editorial comments frame the narrative as his attempt to set the record straight) leave the reader guessing right until the very end of the novel.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is described on the back-cover as “The Omen for the social media age”, which is an apt summary. Arnopp is a fine writer with a great feel for timing, which manages to safely navigate the narrative even through the final, slightly convoluted chapters of this unique, and highly entertaining thriller.