If you take its core plot at face-value, John Dies at the End is at least superficially a xenophobic horror story in the Cthulhu mythos mode. Wong gives his Big Nasties different names from Cthulhu and his crowd, but he specifically borrows a key concept from Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” — if you do something special so you can see them, they can see you back. But Wong puts the familiar formula through some changes, Lord, sort of like a Waring blender* — by the time he’s done, it scarcely looks like a formula anymore.
In the role of those who stand between us and the crawling horrors of other-dimensional space, Wong casts a pair of potty-mouthed chronic underachievers who could almost have slouched over from the nearest (good) Kevin Smith movie.
Wong has excellent control of narrative tone, and the book is often really funny in a slightly sophomoric way. The protagonist encounters an unusual monster in the prologue, and his response was the first thing in this book that made me chuckle, snort, or laugh outright:
The man-shaped arrangement of meat rose up, as if functioning as one body. It pushed itself up on two arms made of game hens and country bacon, planting two hands with sausage-link fingers on the floor. The phrase “sodomized by a bratwurst poltergeist suddenly flew through my mind.”
I also like how Wong makes no bones about his musical taste:
I turned on the radio, looking for something to blast the thoughts out of my head, hoping the moist nighttime air would blow in a rare non-country station. I ground through static and static and static, then recoiled at the shrill, choking sound of a man apparently squealing through a crushed larynx. After a moment I realized it was simply Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit – [an acquaintance’s] favorite band. They’re the ones who invented the musical technique of feeding a list of generic rap phrases to a goat, then reading its turds into a microphone over heavy-metal guitar.
Another of John Dies at the End‘s substantial pleasures is that it’s clearly not meant to be taken at face value. The novel is narrated in the first person by David Wong, the pseudonym employed by author Jason Pargin — but even in the context of the novel, “David Wong” is not the character’s “real” name; he adopted “Wong,” simply because it is the world’s most common surname. Likewise the titular “John” is not really named John but is referred to by it because it’s (allegedly) the world’s most common first name. Much of John Dies at the End uses a framing device of David telling his story to a reporter, who wonders, logically enough, how much of what David says is true, and whether David is really a serial killer with an involved paranoid delusional system. David’s narrative reliability is further called into question by David himself — he glibly glosses over inconsistencies in his story with comments like ” I can’t remember exactly how [she] pulled that off.” When David recounts John’s experiences, he is even more explicit about the integrity of the narrative, liberally sprinkling asides like, “according to John, of course” into the story.
The novel’s “what’s real and what’s not” games go both ways: the jacket copy starts out, “Stop. You should not have touched this book with your bare hands. NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late. They’re watching you.” And on Wong’s website JohnDiesAtTheEnd.com, commenters join in by contributing alleged mysterious happenings resulting from exposure to the book.
It all adds up to a very interestingly multi-layered reading experience.
In the mildly minus column for me, the book consistently employs gross-out imagery. (Skimming an early sequence made me decide this was a library book not a purchase book; it seemed a little cheap and easy. If Wong had led with the bratwurst poltergeist I might have made a different call.) This is not a novel for anyone with a serious objection to authors slopping assorted bodily fluids around by the bucketful.
I also thought it flagged a tiny bit in the last quarter. Wong has to make some choices about how much he wants to tie his wild ride into a coherent narrative, and he also has to choose between emotionally satisfying and thematically appropriate outcomes. I don’t think he always picks the option that would make for the strongest possible book. But this is a teensy quibble — it still makes for a very enjoyable book, and I’m delighted to learn that a sequel is likely to materialize at some point, and intrigued by the one-third complete novella on the author’s website. Basically I’m afraid that I’ll stay up half the night reading it, and then really, really, really want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?
So, uh, so much for critical distance and reserve.
* as Warren Zevon once sang
needs more demons? not at all.