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John Dies at the End (Titan Books)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
David Wong
Publication Date: 
Bottom Line: 

 The story of how this voluminous, four-hundred-and-seventy-page chronicle of the bizarre adventures of two underachieving DVD rental store clerks, a one-handed slacker chick and an exploding rust-coloured dog called Molly (who also occasionally gets to drive a car when she’s possessed by a demonic drug) came to be a publishing reality, is a tale that sounds almost as unlikely and surreal as the lunatic string of demon-demented episodes that get recounted between its two covers … okay, so it’s not that weird, but still … Online humourist, National Lampoon contributor and editor-in-chief of Jason Pargin, was a lowly data entry clerk at a law office back in 2001 when he first began posting online the ludicrous, horrific but often screamingly funny supernatural adventures of his alter ego David Wong on his website. By 2005 he had gathered a loyal band of internet followers and had amassed 150,000 words of text detailing the increasingly strange adventures of David and his best friend John (not their real names, we’re assured early on, as the narrator seeks to convince us every word we’re about to read is true) who end up as unlikely investigators of the uncanny in a dying town in the Midwest of America, situated not far from Kentucky but known here only by the moniker ‘Undisclosed’ to protect the innocent and probably the guilty as well. Before he knew it, every undiscovered would-be author’s dream was coming true for this tall tale’s creator: an independent publishing house first came forward to publish the initial limited run of a novelised print version of the online stories, which quickly sold out; and then the New York publishing house St Martin’s Press took over the reins, and things really began to get serious. Director-writer-producer Don Coscarelli got in touch with the author by email after reading a copy of the early indie imprint, and is now in the process of putting the finishing touches to a film version of “John Dies at the End”. UK readers are just about to get their first glimpse inside the weird, weird mind of David Wong as well, as Titan Books now prepare to unleash this UK print version of the novel on a British audience.

It’s easy to see why this hallucinogenic comic-horror work of unbounded cosmic terror, absurdist body horror and sublime existential dread with a few jokes thrown in here and there would draw someone like Coscarelli to it. The director’s 2002 film “Bubba Ho-Tep” taps a similar vein of crazy slapstick and gory horror mixed with occasional episodes that strike a tone of real poignancy, while the book also has very marked similarities in form to Coscarelli’s phantasmagorical “Phantasm” series. Like the protagonists of those four cult movies from the 1970s and ‘80s, the central characters of “John Dies at the End” are disturbingly ordinary guys on a road movie sojourn through a hazy America that is being systematically decimated by alien/supernatural evil forces from another dimension, whose powers are so laughably beyond the heroes' capacity to thwart that a pall of existential futility hangs over the whole grotesque parade of mad adventures they’re forced to take part in. ‘You people have been poisoned with the myths of lone men turning the tide,’ says one of the many inter-dimensional emissaries of cosmic evil a perplexed John and Dave find themselves facing off against during the course of this sprawling novel. ‘Improbable tales of heroes outrunning explosions with their feet … there are no heroes Mr Wong.’

The real triumph of the novel is the way in which the author’s narrative systematically manages to conjure a genuine sense of menace and cosmic dread, and yet finds the ability to switch gears in an instant and take long comedic digressions into fantastic absurdist whimsy. One way to get a handle on what Wong (to use the pseudonym Pargin prefers to publish under) seems to be doing here, would be to image William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” as it might‘ve turned out if it had been written by Douglas Adams while he was possessed by the warring souls of William S. Burrows and Philip K. Dick instead. In truth, Wong never quite manages to equal the meticulously detailed rhythmic comic prose that marked out Adams’ novelisation of his classic radio series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and its various book form sequels, but his novel reads as a catalogue of immensely imaginative comic set-piece variations on a realm of apocalyptic science fiction and horror movie scenarios, spiced with spiky, sharp-as-a-tack prose and grisly gore-soaked body horror. The story is centred on the discovery of a mysterious drug that facilitates just about every paranormal ability known to man, but also brings its users to the attention of an all-seeing, all-powerful cosmic entity called Korrok, which seems to have God-like powers over all worlds in all dimensions, but which is quite unbridled in both its power and its malice – a purely malevolent, unfathomable force of evil which, furthermore, has a bottomless menagerie of monsters and apparitions from the hellish nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch and H.P. Lovecraft combined, ready and waiting to unleash themselves upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of ‘Undisclosed’. The drug -- a tar-like substance known as ‘Soy Sauce’ -- makes one acutely aware of all this mind-destroying horror, but also vulnerable to becoming possessed by the demonic alien power; the sauce is also itself a sentient thing, and can literally ‘force’ people to take it (mainly by taking on a slithering slug-like mercury form and burrowing its way through its victim’s cheeks).

Once in the thrall of the Soy Sauce (as our bemused heroes very soon are) one’s world descends into a chaotic surrealist nightmare manifesting every variety of alien horror imaginable and a fair few most sane people surely wouldn’t: swarming flying psychic white worms hatch their eggs in the bodies of their demon-possessed zombie victims; demon creatures are animated in cockroach form; menacing Shadow People -- apparitions with the power to erase a person from both time and space, such that they never really existed – blacken the skies in their millions; and armies of absurd, multi-eyed beetle creatures with scorpion stingers, but that also model stupid joke shop wigs (leading to them being referred to as ‘Wig Monsters’ throughout, once this is pointed out), and which can teleport at will -- go on the rampage in a Las Vegas casino. These are just a handful of the bizarre and the ludicrously silly evil monstrosities Dave, John and the various allies they draw into their orbit encounter across this Stephen King-sized tome. Sometimes they’re even dressed in costumes nicked from Elton John’s tour bus while they do so! 

At the same time Wong is able to come up with some horrific and intensely disturbing ideas as well, and there are more than a few twists and many a rug pulled from beneath the reader’s metaphorical feet (and there’s probably a giant razor-toothed slug or two underneath that rug, so watch out) before we reach the end of this crazy journey. According to the world of Wong, there are gargoyle-like evil entities watching you through your television set at all times, and portals into alternative universes might pop up at any moment where most of the inhabitants are gawping winged angels with unfortunately prominent genitalia. There are literally no rules in this expanded, satanic version of reality: the book is a sprawling monster birthed from the unfettered imagination of its author, whose attitude seems to be that anything goes and that no plot device is too crazy, no description too ridiculous not to be given a home between its covers. The prose can be verbose and torridly descriptive when it comes to setting its mad other-worldly nightmares before its readership, but terse, sharp and pointed in laying out the finely wrought suspense set-pieces -- with Wong including short effective passages of internal monologue from the narrator at key moments in the text to add atmosphere. All in all it’s an immensely readable work.

If there’s one negative factor in this, it’s that there’s maybe just a bit too much of it: in a world with no rules at all, the sense of cosmic vertigo that at first ensues from the anticipation that anything could happen at any moment, does eventually start to fade as one starts to realise that most of the novel’s outlandish episodes rely on an endless sequence of problem-resolving deus ex machina that seem to mean the story could actually go on forever if the author so wished it. This is perhaps a side-effect of the way the book originally came about – as a series of short stories which have subsequently been joined together to make a novel, rather than as an intricately planned and plotted text in its own right. The book does incline towards simply being “one damn thing after another” after a while; but, still, one cannot take away from it the breadth and versatility of imagination on display across these pages. It’s attractively written and full of knowing humour and perceptive observational detail (when you’re woken abruptly while having a dream, how does your unconcious mind “know” in advance how to incorporate the noise that wakes you into what’s previously been happening in the dream?). There is, apparently, a sequel in the works. Korrok and his evil, but seemingly unfathomably convoluted cosmic invasion plan looks set to further unravel an unending tangled skein of terror across many more adventures in brain-jarring absurdity. It is well-worth joining Pargin and his two hapless heroes, then, as they set out on this journey into deranged horror, for “John Dies at the End” is a clever, original piece of writing that will have you guffawing out loud one minute but chilled to the marrow the next. It’s an enjoyable, imaginative work of comedy and cosmic awe, that’s simultaneously chuckling at the horrors of existence while raging at the terror of our inevitable annihilation. It’s well worth finding the time and the commitment this lengthy book requires in order to become fully immersed in the author’s unsettling but hugely entertaining world.  

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