Thomas Dunne, 2012, 416 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-312-54634-2
When I end up reading a book at its sequel back-to-back, my review of the sequel is usually appended, capsule-style, to the review of the first volume. Usually, this is enough: most sequels are attempts at recreating the feel of the original book, after all, and a review can simply say whether it was successful at that goal and then take off for holidays.
The case of This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It (don’t you love this subtitle?) is different, though. While it’s definitely a sequel to David Wong’s John Dies at the End, it’s also remarkably different in atmosphere, and flawed enough to warrant specific discussion.
A good chunk of the difference between both books can be explained by fairly dull real-world considerations: The original John Dies at the End was developed over a period of years as a web serial, and it displayed a pack-rat’s accumulation of ideas, genre elements, plot twists and creative impulses. It was filled with the kind of narrative hooks and summersaults that come from a loose writing process without a clear ending in mind. This Book is Full of Spider was developed over a much shorter period of time to capitalize on the success of the first book, was not (as far as I know) subject to public feedback as it was written, and was clearly conceived as a coherent whole from the get-go.
As a result, This Book Is Full of Spiders feels quite a bit different from its predecessor. The rhythm is considerably slower, the density of ideas similarly sparser and the plot can indulge in a bit of leisurely scene-setting rather than being an accumulation of one-damn-thing-after-another. As the novel begins, our two protagonists David and John are roughly where they were at the end of John Dies at the End: stuck in [undisclosed], more or less subsisting on their slacker’s lifestyle when they’re not reluctantly pressed in service as paranormal specialists. But as This Book Is Full of Spiders begins, they’re soon confronted with something far deadlier than occasional monsters from nowhere: Brain-parasite spiders turning their unfortunate victims into zombies.
For a while, This Book Is Full of Spiders treads extremely familiar grounds: The zombie-outbreak narrative model, slightly tweaked for laughs (here, it’s the protagonists who arguably let the zombie outbreak spread) but otherwise followed with a reasonable degree of familiarity. Adding to the handicap, This Book Is Full of Spiders side-lines John’s character for a very long time, which becomes a problem once you remember that John is the most interesting character of the series, one who makes things move through sheer lack of sensible instincts. As David is stuck in a prison hastily created to contain the growing zombie contagion, This Book Is Full of Spiders doesn’t evoke the first book’s freewheeling fun as much as yet another dreary “man’s inhumanity to man” nightmare.
That goes on, with minor variations, for almost two-thirds of the book. After the quasi-anarchic inventiveness of John Dies at the End, it’s easy to wonder where the magic went. It’s not that This Book Is Full of Spiders is in any way bad or dull: It is, however, markedly less interesting than its predecessor for most of its duration.
Fortunately, the last third brings it into focus. For the zombie outbreak in [undisclosed] is closely watched by the rest of the nation via the Internet, and most people seem positively delighted by the presence of zombies, including a group of trigger-happy nerds pretending to be tough zombie hunters. At another level entirely, the presence of zombies makes it really easy to justify the complete eradication of [undisclosed], no matter the collateral damage.
And as This Book Is Full of Spiders wraps to a conclusion, the author serves us with an unexpected thought-piece: the development of zombie in pop culture as this irredeemable evil to be destroyed at all costs carries a hideous cost: the ability to brand someone a zombie and justify its extermination. The creation of pure evil brings about the need to complete destruction, argues Wong, and that’s an exceedingly dangerous weapon in itself. From hum-drum zombie fare, This Book Is Full of Spiders develops into something much rarer: a humanist critique of horror fiction.
It helps, of course, that the last quarter of the book is filled with a bit more of the expected David & John craziness: From John finally ramping something, to a heavier use of Soy Sauce, to a penile joke literally writ large, to another narrative game involving a policeman, to the presence of the series’ shadowy antagonists. The end of the book is quite a bit more satisfyingly than its beginning and anyone still dissatisfied by the novel should finally get their time’s worth at the end. That’s the beauty of strong finishes: they forgive almost everything.
Still, there’s little that needs to be forgiven in the novel’s explicit intention to deconstruct the zombie trope and dispatch it with a big humanistic smooch. It’s a fantastic conceit, and one that should be taken up more often at a time where horror fiction seems hell-bent on presenting evil in its purest form. Our attitudes toward the world are shaped by fiction and there’s something insidious in letting narrative constructs take the place of critical or even empathetic thinking. [December 2013: Case in point being public apathy to the slew of revelations following Edward Snowden’s release of confidential NSA documents: Many see this as confirmation of decades’ worth of paranoid thriller fiction, and so not worth getting bothered about. That in itself is an outrage: Are we letting thrillers condition us to accept pervasive and intrusive surveillance programs? What is wrong with us to let our brains being altered that way?]
And that is finally why This Book Is Full of Spiders is worth discussion by itself, and not just as a mere follow-up: It tries something just as ambitious as its prequel, but in a different direction. It’s still a great read, but it’s also trying to get us to think about innate genre prejudices. Don’t expect exactly the same as its predecessor, and it will be a great read.