John Dies at The End
Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover, 384 pages, $24.99
Review by Sheila Merritt
The protagonist in John Dies at The End notes, “Inappropriate laughter is the universal first sign of madness.”
Extrapolating on that premise, readers who positively respond to this novel are quite mad. The first person narrator/author “David Wong” (a pseudonym for Jason Pargin, editor in chief of Cracked.com) adroitly addresses his audience; the adversaries in this novel are described as “shadowy beings” that “had the crude sense of humor of fourteen-year-olds.” There is much to laugh at in this story, and a lot of it is, indeed, of an adolescent level of humor. What ultimately lessens the book’s youthful and goofy charm is its length; at 384 pages, this amusing poke at the horror standards of Lovecraft and Invasion of the Body Snatchers is too long. For all its weirdness and wackiness, the novel commits the ultimate faux pas of self indulgence. It seems to rest on the notion that witty/snarky verbiage is enough to sustain a lengthy narrative that is short on substance.
It is perhaps the book’s genesis from an immensely popular online serial (70,000 downloads) re-cut into the format of a novel that is to blame. Many of the same situations get repeated. These variations on a theme scream déjà vu; even when a different joke or body part is employed.
The premise is the stuff of many of today’s horror movies: Two clueless male friends must save their world from a nefarious takeover. The dude duo ingest a substance called Soy Sauce which permits its user the ability to travel through time and other dimensions. It also opens a portal; which is never a good thing. The evil entities behind Soy Sauce are thus described: “Try to imagine a Hitler or a Vlad the Impaler or even the nasty old man at the dump who steals people’s cats and buries them alive. Now imagine those guys but strip them of all their limitations. No bodies, so they never die or run down or get tired. Give them all the time in the world. Imagine that malice, that stupid black mass of hate drifting through eternity, just burning on and on like an oil well fire.”
Snide send ups of society and horror abound; even Whitley Strieber’s alien abduction books take a hilarious hit. Cynical life lessons are learned through media: “Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news. Movies taught me that. For every one Jesus you get a million zombies.”
John Dies at The End doesn’t skimp on gore, bodily functions, sarcasm, or irreverence. There are many laugh out loud moments, but not enough to justify close to 400 pages of reading. Prior to this hardcover edition, the book was published as a paperback by Permuted Press in 2007. Somewhere, along the road to its latest incarnation, the work should have had a good pruning. It needed a discerning editor to say “the yuck/yuk stops here.”