As a young boy, my brother tended to get Cracked magazine rather than Mad magazine; I think it was probably cheaper for essentially the same content (or so it seemed to a young boy). In any case, he (and therefore I) grew up with Cracked. By the time the magazine itself went under, of course, I had stopped paying attention, but at some point in the last few years, I began regularly checking the new Cracked.com, which I find is much funnier than it likely should be.
At the helm of this new digital enterprise (sans Sylvester P. Smythe) is senior editor David Wong, a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. It was really only via this association that I learned about John Dies at the End, Wong/Pargin’s satirical horror novel, recently rescued from an indie publisher by St. Martin’s Griffin. Given my positive associations with the new Cracked1, giving John Dies at the End a shot was a no-brainer. Also, it’s being adapted into a movie with Paul Giamatti.
I expected more out&out slapstick and or snide commentary, but I never got it; John Dies at the End, though full of enough random events and subtle digs at horror tropes to fulfill Wong’s contractual obligations for what constitutes hilarity in horror novel. For all that, though, he’s managed what is—most of the time—and engaging “B Horror” book, the sort of which reminds me of my youth watching MonsterVision and the indomitable Joe Bob Briggs.
The book is split roughly into three parts, indicating its origins as a serial publication on the web. Its prologue (I don’t know if it was added for the final manuscript or if it existed in serial form as well) is somewhat misleading, as it introduces its characters as something of a midpoint in the story, and—if I might editorialize—assigns them a confidence and skill that they don’t have. David Wong and John Cheese are ghostbusters, or something to that effect; the prologue is intentionally vague about the nature of what they do, but it nonetheless finds the dysfunctional duo (and the dog Molly) venturing to an isolated farmhouse where, with great aplomb, they do battle against a malicious, paranormal force. Though the impression of David and John as slackers and somewhat bumbling malcontents is inescapable, one can’t help but feel as though they are just a little badass.
The start of the book proper immediately dismisses the second impression, heaving the reader bodily back to the recent past, with David and John as grunts at a struggling video rental store at an undisclosed, unremarkable Midwestern town. At a local music festival, David and John get tangled up with a lost dog, a crazy Jamaican drug dealer, and a strange drug called “soy sauce” which, it turns out, is made of cryptozoological “rods“, and gives its users rare powers such as clairvoyance if it doesn’t kill them instead. Because of this “soy sauce”, David and John are launched into a series of adventures which contain a whole host of horror and science fiction tropes, intentionally referential and somewhat scatterbrained. Shadow people from other dimensions, demons inhabiting humanoid forms comprised of sausages or cockroaches, exorcisms, lots of violence and gore that seems somehow too incredible or ridiculous to be disgusting (e.g. Kill Bill Part I), and a nonchalance with respect to the space-time continuum that is either lazy or brilliant. Continuity in general is something of a problem, either by design or simply because it was too difficult to take certain things back when published serially; Molly the dog is alive, possessed, dead, alive again, and potentially dead again, with no particular explanation as to why or how. Trips to other dimensions to meet Korrok, a demon/demigod and the book’s official(?) malefactor, pay homage to the Doom video games and turn decidedly scifi with Artificial Intelligences and ray guns. Most of this is wrapped in a frame narrative of David telling his story (or at least the first two parts) to a skeptical human interest reporter named Arnie Blondestone, and even this frame narrative ends up taking a strange twist that makes little sense because Arnie is dead before the interview even begins.Yes, it’s that kind of book. I appreciate that much of what occurs is the horror-satire equivalent of a pie in the face or a banana-peel pratfall2, but part of what makes good satire is consistency and concision. When one tries to spoof/lampoon too many things, the focus and by extension the satirical effect is diminished. There are parts of John Dies at the End that I genuinely enjoyed, enough that I’m looking forward to its sequel; however, there were times when it felt like a story written by a young child who couldn’t make up his mind, beginning with, say, a pirate who goes to space, and ending with ninja vampires fighting shark robots. It’s cute at first, but given that everything else about the book was excellent, characterization of its antiheroes in particular, the fact that narrative trajectory is really no different than those space pirates, ninja vampires, and robo-sharks is disappointing and not a little irritating.