Review: John Dies At The End

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Review: John Dies At The End

            “Now, this is going to sound crazy…”

Picture an empty house, a terrified woman, and a deceased boyfriend threatening her from beyond the grave. Two supernatural troubleshooters – armed with only a medieval torch, a 1987 ghetto blaster, and a dog with no self-preservation instincts – are soon caught in a life-or-death struggle with a monster made entirely out of frozen meat products.

And all of that? Was just the prologue.

The third book in David Wong’s utterly bizarre trilogy came out this month, so it’s high time I finally read book one: John Dies At The End. I’d love to come up with a pithy description, but there’s just no way to summarize what this book is about in three sentences or less. Click the jump to see me flail around trying to come up with something that passes for a review.

“Look, not every little single thing in the story is true…”

Good God, where the heck do I even begin with this book? Wong (nee Jason Pargin) makes some self-deprecating comments in the forward where he describes his novel as “400 pages of undiagnosed personality disorder” and a “150,000-word cry for help”. Both of those are sort of close, but you have to also include Wong’s talent for weaving together the threads of several entirely different (but somehow connected) apocalyptic events in a tangle that gives you all the elements of what’s about to happen, and then laughs maniacally when the eventual plot resolution knocks you on your ass anyway.

Plus, using a bratwurst as a cell phone. I just…okay, I can’t explain it, you’ll just have to take my word that it’s part of the story.

The John from the title of the book is a slacker, daredevil (in that he doesn’t think before he does stupidly dangerous stuff. Ever.), possibly unhinged twenty-something who has fallen into the role of “the guy you call when weird stuff happens”. He loves to talk about his penis, fancies himself an action hero (complete with an endless supply of gawdawful puns for catchphrases), and one of his many ways of “outsmarting” an enemy is to pretend he doesn’t speak English and then fake a seizure. He’s utterly infuriating…and sometimes – not often, just every now and then – the author will mention something that makes you see why he’s a main character instead of just comic relief.

The narrator, David, is a little more grounded, but exactly as unhinged in his own way. Even more self-deprecating than the author (he’s actually the fictionalized version of the author, and I hope to God this story isn’t autobiographical), David’s been convinced of his own worthlessness for a long time now. He’s gradually letting his life decompose, working at a minimum wage video rental job in the Illinois town of [Undisclosed] (a quiet burg with grand plans and a lot of shuttered store fronts). David keeps letting John drag him into almost certainly fatal situations, partly because John seems to be a force of nature in that regard, and partly because certain dark forces have made it very clear to David that sitting this one out, or running away, or dying in a painless suicide, are simply not an option.

“You think the jellyfish ate her?”

“Bones and all?”

“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”

John and David see so much weirdness over the course of the book that their reactions cover the range from stark terror, numb despair, mostly ineffective battle rage, but usually a blasé “huh, how about that?”in response to the latest extraordinarily bizarre event.Between the two of them I had something to laugh about in every chapter. Which is good, because in addition to being hilarious this book is really really dark.

“Are you scared?”

“Pretty much all the time, yeah.”

“Why? Because of what happened in Las Vegas?”

“Because I sort of looked into Hell, but I still don’t know if there’s a Heaven or not.”

Most of this book is nightmarishly frightening. It’s either the over-the-top scary of monsters and dismemberment, or the quiet terror of noticing awful things in a painting, or that voice in the back of your mind that’s desperately trying to get you to remember something really important. There’s heartrendingly mundane problems that no one should ever have to deal with, and the realization that Hell consists of the really and truly personal Hell you’ve already been through, except forever.

And if all of that isn’t scary enough, a large portion of the book is devoted to the use of a drug that expands your perceptions to the point where you can do things like predict the future, or read someone’s mind using only their facial expressions. The side effect is that you can also know things no one wants to know, like intimate details about what your food thought about before you ate it.

“Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

The author has a way of making lunatic images that are just close enough to normal to be truly unsettling: a stiff-legged dog floating in a circle around a living room ceiling, hallucinations where fast-food restaurant ads and songs on the radio have been twisted into something horrible, characters that have been turned into something that still looks human but shouts random phrases like “THIS IS JUST A RECORDING, SMART GUY!” while trying to murder you. Things liven up a little with a generous helping of feces-related slapstick, and attack-mustaches, and idiot mistakes right out of an urban legend, but that’s usually just to make sure you’re really caught by surprise the next time someone randomly explodes.

The focus of the story moves back and forth in time, and I can’t even tell you that much about the story itself because there’s a lot of brilliantly wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff that I don’t want to risk spoiling. David is narrating his adventures to a journalist while occasionally throwing in a heavy dose of foreshadowing and dropping hints about something really awful in his past. At the same time, the David in the story he’s telling keeps losing time, so in addition to investigating what’s currently going on he has to figure out what happened in the time he can’t remember, and how bad it was. And there’s a very good chance he could be embellishing or outright lying about all of it.

The pace is relentless. I might have finished this book in a couple of days, but I had to keep stopping to take a breath before diving back in again. The story isn’t even close to resolved by the end of the book, and I still haven’t figured out what elements are still left to be explained, and what have already been explained and I somehow missed it in all of the confusion. It may take me a few weeks before I can dive into the second book; by all accounts it’s even crazier, and much darker.