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Friday, October 24, 2014

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Book Review: John Dies At The End

...or does he?

If I’m being honest, this is either the worst book I have ever read. Or the best.

It’s hard to summarize this novel, because so much insanity happens from start to finish, and I can't really tell what's real and what's not. So I guess the best way would be to put it in the words of the novel’s author, David Wong:

"A gruesome, hyperactive chain of absurd non-sequiturs."
"The aftermath of a crash between two semi trucks hauling napalm and vibrators."
"A hallucinogenic cacophonous Mardi Gras of fart monsters."
"Grotesque daydreams… [that might] provide valuable data for mental health professionals, and would help future historians understand the downfall of this once great civilization."

I think that just about sums it up, but perhaps I can strip it down to the basic core of it's plot. You know, so you can get a better sense of what’s in store, just in case you have the urge to one day experience the "personality disorder that is John Dies at the End."

Dave and his friend John are essentially “Ghostbusters” of a sort. Well, let’s just say they’ve seen things. And when shit is so weird you don’t know who to call, well, I guess you call them.

The whole story is narrated by Dave, who, from the beginning, is actually regaling their ghostly/demon adventures to Arnie Blondstone, a reporter sitting in the booth across from him at They China Food! restaurant in an unnamed town in Midwest America. Though at first skeptical as to whether or not he actually has a story, Arnie agrees to listen to what Dave has to say. After all, there have been rumors—rumors of people disappearing, time skipping around, and, of course, the mysterious shadow people.

As the story goes, it all started when John and Dave, two ordinary video store clerks, got their hands on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce.” As many drugs do, the “soy sauce” opened up a whole new world, except that I literally mean a new world—one filled with meat monsters, 7-legged spiders with beaks, a talking dog that doesn’t seem to die, and where there’s always the imminent threat of demon maggot flies taking control of your entire body at any given moment. 

Halfway through the book, I realized that the suggestive title probably had little to no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the novel. Not because there’s some great metaphoric meaning that transcends the basic plot or anything of that nature. But because someone dying in this book isn’t even the most quintessential thing that could happen to a character in Undisclosed town, United States. Now I think you think I mean that dying isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a character, which is probably also true, but that isn’t what I meant. I mean that everyone—from the narrator, to John, to Arnie the skeptic reporter and voice of reason, to the demon computer Korrok himself—is lying to us. And death won't get in the way of telling a good story. Besides, you can always buy a street hot dog in order to communicate with the dead if you need it.

There are no rules to this book, which makes it hard to predict. But it also feels a little convoluted in a way that you almost wish there was a little more structure. I suppose I don't fit into the target audience (I'm not a big horror reader), so maybe I wasn't able to fully appreciate the way in which this book parodies the genre. To me, cutting intermittently between the actual story and the telling of it to Arnie the reporter is necessary to the everyday reader, because Arnie doesn't believe half the things that come out of Dave's mouth. And I think the reader is supposed to take this cue. But behind John's "killer" puns and Dave's bouts of denial that he's apart of something larger at work, something else creeps onto pages (pun intended). Once you get through the seemingly randomness of fighting various monsters/demons from multiple dimensions, a couple of real human moments slip in, mostly towards the very end. One where Dave reveals to Amy why he was sent to a behavioral program in high school, and also one where Arnie rants about a cat that he may have once had but his memory has since betrayed him. 

I'm not really sure if the soy sauce ever really wears off, or if everything is just a continued hallucination. But I like that the book plays on the real phenomenon of thinking you've seen something out of the corner of your eye for a split second. A trick of the light? A quick break in the time continuum? A ghost? And as this is has happened to just about everybody, I found myself actually considering the true nature of these instances, and whether or not there are actually other worlds out there that sometimes accidentally collide with ours. If only we had a drug that would allow us to always see them. 

I especially want to give a shout out to the highly entertaining Forward and Preface of this novel. The forward is written by cult horror legendary filmmaker, Don Coscarelli, who, by a series of serendipitous events that may or may not have been predetermined by a robot, stumbled upon the “350 pages of insanity” that is John Dies at the End. And feeling so inspired, he decided to make the book into an actual movie with none other than Paul Giamatti. He's so excited about this book, you can't not be excited, and the Preface that follows only further peaks your curiosity.

The preface is written by author, David Wong, who is still surprised that anyone would actually publish (let alone read) his “convoluted NyQuil fever dream of a horror story.” Again, his words, not mine. He wrote JDatE while working in a cubicle for $8 an hour, and his only intention for publication was online. For free. And under a pseudonym, where even his family and friends didn’t know he had written it. It's a funny testament to how the unholy things that grow in the murky vats of our brains can somehow reach thousands of strangers on the Internet and actually entertain them. So I'm not sure if this book is popular because it's so unexpected, or because out of every crazy exaggeration that comes out of Dave and John's mouths, you understand that this is their world. While their exact purpose is often unclear and their actions may not seem to lead to any abiding solution, they still have it. Undeniable purpose. And in a shithole town where people let themselves rot away, they at least have that. And guts. And each other. And penis jokes in the face of danger.

If you’re a huge cult horror fan, this might possibly classify as a masterpiece. But for me, there were still a few loose ends that never really get tied up, and I think a few chapters could’ve been condensed into one. But I guess that just means I have to read the sequel to get my answers.

And while I felt that Book 1 dragged on with too much random action and not enough actual substance, Book 2 made up for with the introduction of the one-handed, vomiting Amy Sullivan. And because the main characters started to gain a little more depth and purpose. I'm going to go ahead and say that liked this book. Things were confusing, but Wong's writing style is his own. His humor leaks onto page even in the scariest, most desperate moments, and I have to say that I was genuinely impressed by the sheer volume of onomatopoeias that made it to publication. 

Title: John Dies At The End

Author: David Wong

Genre: Horror, Supernatural, Humor

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Horror buffs, guys

Final Rating: Three ? out of Five Bumblebees

? ? ?

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