David Wong – John Dies at the End (Book Review)

John Dies at the End cover

David Wong – John Dies at the End

David Wong, the author of John Dies at the End, is a pseudonym for Cracked editor Jason Pargin. Cracked, of course, is that humor site that turns out to be full of bitterly intelligent essays with sophisticated points hidden behind the obscenities. John Dies at the End brings that same sensibility to horror-comedy. It doesn’t necessarily make any larger points, but it’s easy to read while building an atmosphere that’s both juvenile and consistent. It proposes that the reality behind what we see is one bad drug trip, and then sells that premise.

More comedy than horror, John Dies is about lazy fuck-ups who learn to see demons and ghosts. The only thing that saves them is that the powers that want to destroy humanity are as dumb as they are. On the other hand, maybe only someone with their approach to life could withstand the barrage of surreal sights that they face. Though there are some consistent rules being built behind the madness (again, just like Cracked), the book is full of absurd humor. Whenever you start getting comfortable with this mix, though, horrifying things will happen to shake you up.

This often works great. Wong is a funny man, and he has a clever take on one of the clichés of horror: The idea of people being insignificant specks in a malevolent universe is a common theme, but it’s difficult to make the reader believe in the incomprehensible beings that are supposed to be out there. Wong finds a mix that lets him dial up the weird humor to a level that would normally be annoying, but in this case it’s a representation of just how wrong our everyday expectations are. By really making the reader feel lost sometimes, the message is conveyed.

However, John Dies works much better at the beginning. The story was serialized online, apparently with modifications, over the course of years, and the collected version still feels episodic. Early on, it feels like the author has free reign to go in any direction he wants, and the unpredictable story is a lot of fun. By the end, it feels like Wong is trying to force a plot into this. Some people get traditional story arcs that don’t fit the anarchic sentiment the book opened with, and the things that aren’t explained feel a lot more arbitrary once certain mysteries are figured out. It’s still funny, but the one thing that really does bug me is the way it derails that horror formula. The heroes become too important and are watched by the bad guys. I can’t shudder at the idea of being lost in an incomprehensible universe when the main characters turn out to matter after all.

Despite that, John Dies at the End is a hilarious, unique book. It’s smartly stupid humor and quirky worldview are worth experiencing.

Grade: B

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