Jason Arnopp is a British author and scriptwriter. His background is in journalism: he has worked on titles such as Heat, Q, The Word, Kerrang!, SFX and Doctor Who Magazine. He has written comedy for Radio 4 and official tie-in fiction for Doctor Who and Friday The 13th. The Last Days of Jack Sparks is the first novel which is entirely Jason’s own fault (though some readers will blame Jack himself).
FOREWORD by Alistair Sparks
At the centre of the house in which my late brother Jacob and I grew up, there was a black hole.
That’s what we called it. In reality, it was a small room born of inexplicable architectural design. A roughly square space, right in the middle of a suburban Suffolk bungalow. No lights, windows or ventilation. No bigger than two department store changing rooms pushed together. Three doors led in and out.
Our mother made a virtue of this pointless junction box, as was her way, and hammered a coat-rack to one of the walls in there. So it became the cloak room.
Jacob, who would rise to fame and infamy as Jack Sparks, shared my instinctive fear of the word ‘cloak.’ Cloaks covered people, rendering them sinister, and so our dread of that room deepened. Calling it ‘the black hole’ had actually made it less intimidating. Something which science could explain.
The cloak room was a place we took special measures to avoid. We would take the long route around every time ― anything rather than having to enter that stale pocket of black. As you hurried through, your pulse would gallop. You’d gasp or even cry out as you mistook a prickle on the nape of your neck for the cold, stale breath of the dead and gone.
The incident happened one Saturday in the summer of 1983, when Jacob was aged five, four years my junior. As with all siblings there was some rivalry between us, but brotherly harmony was the norm. We would climb trees, ride bikes, play football. Then we would lean against each other as we limped home, after accidents which tended to involve trees, bikes or football.
This incident was born of pure childish innocence, but feels unexpectedly relevant here, in a book to which I never dreamt I would contribute. I really feel it sheds light on my brother’s nature and, I’m sorry to say, his severe downward spiral.
Most of the windows were open that day. Outside, hot air rippled. Our mother was in the garden, stretched out on a reclining lounger which occasionally broke and made her swear so loudly that our neighbours complained. She had one of her suspense novels, a pack of Silk Cuts and her usual lack of sun cream.
Jacob was absorbed with a toy car, whooshing it across the dining room floor, his face flushed. Seizing my chance for a bit of mutual fun, I stalked around the house and jammed all but one of the cloak room’s doors shut, dragging furniture to create blockades. The architect had at least thought to make these doors open outwards.
I peered out through the kitchen window and saw Mum dozing, the book splayed on her belly. Then I told Jacob we were going to play a game.
He, I explained, would be a ghost-hunter. And I would be a ghost, chasing him. The rules of the game were simple. I would pursue him around the house. He had to try and pass through the black hole three times without being grabbed and turned into a ghost himself.
Jacob looked uncertain. ‘If I’m a ghost hunter, why am I running?’
‘’Cause you’ve met me,’ I told him. ‘I’m a ghost that’s too big and evil to deal with.’
He thought this over, then to my relief accepted it. The trap was set.
Jacob ran whooping ahead of me as I waved my arms about, made spooky noises and restricted my speed so as not to catch him. Making a beeline for the exact cloak room door I’d planned, he raced across the length of the dining room and bolted into the black.
Sprinting to catch up, almost slipping over, I slammed the door shut on him. Then I gripped the handle tightly with both hands, the muscles in my arms taut with anticipation.
There was a muffled thump as Jacob tried to exit through one of the other doors, only to find it impossible. His voice was indistinct, as if piped down a bad phone line.
‘Hey! It won’t...’
His voice trailed away as he tried another door. Another thump and this time just a bewildered cry.
The blood thundered in my head as I squeezed that door handle, ready for the assault which began in seconds. When Jacob wrenched it, only to encounter the perceptibly imperfect force of human resistance, his voice became charged with fear.
‘Ali, stop it! Ali!’
There was no chance of our mother hearing and yet Jacob’s pitch rose along with his volume. Sometimes he would abandon his vain attempts to open the door, only to suddenly try again in the hope of surprising me. Or I would hear the whumphs as he slammed himself against one of the other doors, yelling for Mum. Still, I did not relent. Since he didn’t sound terrified and was not crying, I felt confident he too would see the funny side when I released him.
Then those calls from inside the cloak room stopped dead.
Biceps burning, I twisted around and leant heavily back against the door. While watching flies chase each other, I listened hard.
I listened for what felt like a long time.
The sense of fun began to fade.
‘Don’t worry,’ I called in through the thick wood. ‘I’ll let you out now, okay?’
I laughed, lightly.
There was no reply.
Despite standing in a room flooded with sunlight, I began to feel uneasy. Against all odds, I creeped myself out.
A sly, arcane image snuck unbidden into my mind.
I pictured Jacob transformed, inside that room.
In my head, he now stood wearing a cloak, with hollow darkness where his face should be.
I became convinced that this spectral monk who was once my brother now stood silently waiting for me to see him. When I opened the door, I decided, he would lurch out of the room. He would tear off my limbs, one by one, laughing as he did so.
‘Jakey?’ I called out.
My heart, which had thumped so excitedly only moments beforehand, now felt like it was banging on a door, wanting out.
I felt sick with worry about what had happened to my brother.
About what he had become in that unknowable space.
Seconds later, I saw it all coming out from under the door.
(C) Jason Arnopp 2016
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.