I’ve been meaning to read John Dies at the End for a while but finally got inspired when I found out that it had been optioned and made into a movie directed by Don Coscarelli. Now I’m not going to say that Coscarelli is a great director or anything, but he did direct The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, so let’s give him high marks for material at least. (Actually I think Bubba Ho-Tep is a fantastic movie and if you don’t think so then there’s probably something wrong with you. At any rate I think anyone would concede it’s the best movie ever made about Elvis Presley fighting a mummy in an East Texas nursing home.) Also the movie has Paul Giamatti in it, which is pretty cool. I like Giamatti, since he’s in all these solid, award winning films and then he’ll take some role as a crazed gunman or hammy villain or something, it’s clear he just loves to do that stuff.
I guess that’s just tangential to the book itself, which is by David Wong and features David Wong as protagonist, or at least the fictional Wong, since that’s really the pen name of Jason Pargin. He chose the pen name to keep his online writing and personal life separate, but it says so right on the back cover, no breach of trust required. I was familiar with Wong’s writing from cracked.com, and generally consider him one of the stronger (and funnier) writers in the stable over there, one of the others being John Cheese, which isn’t his real name either but is the basis for the fictional John of this book. Anyhow, David Wong.
I had no idea he could write like this.
This is a fantastic debut novel and an excellent seasonal choice, being both silly and scary as hell. Again, I’m not going to say that this is great in every sense of that word, there are some pacing issues and spots where it’s maybe not as tight as it should be – but this is pretty solid. Well done, Wong.
Despite the fact that it is almost entirely unlike Illuminatus! in plot, theme, or structure, that was the comparison my mind kept throwing up while I was reading it. There’s some of the same neo-Lovecraft pastiche, and a lot of similar mind screws, plus stupid puns and low humor. Reading it also gives you the same impression that you’re reading something by some poor guy who has completely lost his mind. It’s immersive in the same way that Illuminatus! is; you’ve got the (perhaps) unreliable narrator who’s telling the story, and they keep going back and maybe what happened is just a little different than what he said the time before, and even though Wong keeps pulling that trick you think you’re on more solid ground than you are. No matter how many rugs he pulls, you figure you’re on the last one. And you never are. Even after I just said that.
There’s also extremely effective use of alternating comedy and horror. You’ve got this poor teenage kid who gets covered in demonic hell worms or something, and he’s shrieking and screaming as they burrow through his skin, and the description could be right out of Steven King. Then it’s over, he’s fine. Okay, he’s possessed by these demons or whatever, but he generally manifests this by going around punching people in the balls for a while, making him pretty low on the threat level and playing for laughs. And then when you’re used to the dick-punching he goes and does something really bad. That’s pretty good storytelling right there.
There’s also just some really effective horror elements throughout, and Wong puts you right in the middle of it. There’s a great part where the fictional Wong comes to in his room after work, but it looks like it’s been ransacked and someone stole his gun, but then it turns out he’s actually holding the gun and the barrel is a little warm and there aren’t as many bullets as there should be in there and if he just came in from the garage he shouldn’t feel like he’s been walking around in the snow outside for half an hour and he’s pretty sure that if he goes out in his tool shed there’s going to be a dead body there. Or when he’s with a guy and told not to look in the mirror, but he does anyway and there’s nobody there, and then the guy starts smiling and comes to choke him to death.
Stuff like that.
The frame story itself is not so great, I guess. Wong is meeting a journalist at a restaurant to tell him about all the crazy stuff he’s gotten mixed up in, which means that we end up hearing the origin story maybe a few more times than strictly necessary. Suffice to say that David and his friend John got the ability to see things Man Wasn’t Meant to See as the result of taking some drugs, or rather a drug, by a wacked-out Rastafarian who probably wasn’t really a Rastafarian, and maybe not even a person. They call the drug “soy sauce”. It isn’t soy sauce. Instead, it unlocks the secrets of the universe. Or kills you. Sometimes both, not necessarily in that order.
In short, I liked it. Funny, scary, well paced and surprisingly literate, it’s a great tale of the supernatural as narrated by a guy who sits around his house eating cheap burritos and playing video games.
I also got the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, and that one is head and shoulders better. Wong’s writing is more assured, the plot is tighter without as much screwing around, and it’s both more funny and much scarier. I don’t scare easy, but I actually found myself clenching up a couple of times.
Instead of the more freewheeling narrative of John Dies, this one is more of a coherent narrative about how the town gets infested by invisible, possibly extradimensional spiders that attack people, turn them into zombies and, you know, eat their soft parts and whatnot. I’ve mentioned before that everyone feels compelled to do a zombie story these days and that I’m pretty much sick of it, but this very well may be the best take on the genre that I’ve seen yet. For one thing, the scariest sequence isn’t actually about the zombies, but rather the one where Wong wakes up in a quarantine facility after losing a week of his memories, and then finds that the other inhabitants have been making use of his supernatural abilities to detect which other inmates are infected with the spiders. The prisoners also come into the quarantine in either a red or green jumpsuit and have segregated themselves accordingly, for very little good reason. One of the Reds has the only gun but the Greens have the best territory. Eventually you find out there's more going on than you might have initially imagined, but even then the issues are not necessarily cut and dried. As one of the characters points out, at any point past toddlerhood it's usually not that easy to know who to shoot at.
Like any good zombie story, the zombies aren’t really the issue. Wong wrote a very good article about the monkeysphere at one point; that’s what is going on here. And while the extradimensional parasitic infestation is certainly a problem, it’s really the forces demanding its eradication that get out of hand. It’s actually got a lot of seriously weighty stuff going on regarding social dynamics and the human condition, while still being laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely creepy.
I guess it’s a sequel in the sense that John and Dave are still in it and still basically assholes, but if you’d never read John Dies you’d simply pick the story right up. It’s less of a continuing adventure and more of a stand alone, with a better novel structure to boot. Also back is Dr. Marconi, who I’d say is something of Dave and John’s rival in the supernatural biz, except that he’s educated, poised, wealthy and somehow always wearing a tailored suit, even during the apocalypse. I bet Dave and John would hate him if he wasn’t so awesome. (In the movie I see they cast Clancy Brown in this part, which seems about right; or that guy from the Dos Equis commercials.)
These aren’t perfect, and they’re not for everyone, but I like this blend of low humor and research, so there you go. There aren’t many books that I’ve read that have both explanations for video game logic as well as velvet paintings of Jesus Christ, but here I’ve found one. If you just read one, read This Book is Full of Spiders, but both are worthwhile in their own way. Or if you have a kid that is sleeping excessively, you could try using either as a bedtime story. I guarantee that they won’t be sleeping much after that.