St. Martin’s, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 480 pages, C$18.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-312-65914-1
Ever since the rise of the Internet, the expression “cult novel” doesn’t mean what it used to. Once upon a time, it conjured images of a battered paperback passed from one set of hands to the other, its hushed-tone reputation growing through the yellowed pages of mimeographed fanzines or late-night college-dorm conversations. Nowadays, it’s almost too easy for things to earn cult status. Quasi-forgotten novel from the sixties discussed by half-a-dozen readers on Goodreads? Cult. Mid-list writer with fifty comments on her latest blog post? Cult figure. Episodic novel published at irregular intervals on an out-of-the-way web site and discovered by a growing number of readers thanks to blog-of-mouth? So-cult-it-hurts.
And that takes us to John Dies at the End, a horror/humor hybrid which was written and self-published on the web by Jason Pargin, a writer best known as “David Wong” for incisive essays such as the famous “Monkeysphere” piece. Having attracted a devoted following, Wong added material to the story for years before wrapping it all up for publication. The result is quite unlike anything you’ve read so far.
The adventures of John and David, two twenty-something slackers who find themselves involved in paranormal affairs despite their best intentions, John Dies at the End blends stoner comedy with existential horror and ends up as a hip mix of cool things. Thanks to Wong’s irreverent narration, the novel recycles, twists and extends familiar tropes in a potent mixture of dread and comedy. For seasoned horror/fantasy readers, John Dies at the End is particularly interesting in that while it’s clearly aware of genre antecedents, it’s clearly not beholden to the genre in its narrative construction. The web-serial origins of the story are clearest in considering its structure: the novel divides itself into two major adventures, interrupted by a shorter interlude episode. Perhaps most significantly, Wong has a decidedly irreverent attitude toward familiar plot conventions: The protagonist’s narration is rich in self-awareness, peaking in a late-book refusal to further investigate a troubling mystery. (A good thing too, since he admits that had he done so at that time, he would have killed himself. By the end of the story, we readers understand what he means.) When I say that John Dies at the End is a delightfully profane novel, I’m not speaking as much about the harsh language of the book as much about its willingness to embrace irreverence in dealing with genre ideas.
On a related note, John Dies at the End is also particularly good at maintaining both the laughs and the chills that a hybrid novel should ideally contain. There are at least two deeply troubling ideas embedded in the very narration of the novel, challenging our ideas about unreliable narrators. Otherwise, Wong doesn’t hesitate to laden on the graphic descriptions when talking about the horrors that confront John and David on a near-constant basis.
It helps that the funny parts are almost laugh-out-loud hilarious. I have a particular affection for a chair fight between the heroes and supernatural demons, in which the hits only stop when the characters run out of chair-related fighting puns.
It all amounts to an engrossing, hilarious, chilling and unique reading experience. John Dies at the End is almost the definition of a break-out first novel: You can see here the culmination of years of development, ideas piled upon each other as if the writer had put everything he’d ever wanted to say between two covers. The pacing has to be frantic to keep up with the inventiveness, and if the structure suffers a bit from the development process, who cares? It’s one more welcome quirk for a book loved for its quirkiness.
And from quirks, we quickly go back to cult. Of course, few things truly stay cult these days, and so it is that John Dies at the End was successfully adapted for the big screen in 2012. The film is quite enjoyable, but the legions of new fans who will come to the book after the movie will be delighted to find out that the film has maybe only half the plot of the novel: Save for the first third and the last tenth, there’s almost an entirely new film’s worth of stuff in the novel, including some of the most disturbing material in the book. (The film, for all of its qualities, is considerably funnier than horrific.) This review may have begun by suggesting that the death of old-style cult status is somehow a bad thing, but let’s be clearer: At a time where everything is cult thanks to immediate electronic communications, nothing is cult. Which is fortunate, given that nobody is a completely mainstream individual. We are all of our one-person cult culture. Given that, doesn’t it make you positively gleeful that something as strange and enjoyable as John Dies at the End can be written, published and enjoyed by exactly its rightful target audience?