Tag Archives: David Wong

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

<em class="BookTitle">This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It</em>, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

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.

John Dies at the End (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">John Dies at the End</strong> (2012)

(On DVD, June 2013) The beauty with quasi-cult films aimed at specific audience is that once in a while you are the target audience.  So it is that John Dies at the End blends science-fiction/horror influences with an irreverent lack of respect for otherworldly terrors, two very sympathetic protagonists and a dynamic blend of quick pacing and terrific direction.  Writer/director Don Coscarelli nails the quirky tone of David Wong’s source novel and delivers a near-unclassifiable film that nonetheless plays beautifully to genre audiences.  Often crude and unsubtle, John Dies at the End is nonetheless fairly sophisticated in the way it dares audiences to follow along a dense thicket of ideas, plot developments, dramatic turns and throwaway jokes.  It’s a film that moves quickly and doesn’t stop for people to catch up.  The first half is a dizzying accumulation of strangeness, while the second gets down to the sometimes fastidious task of explaining the plot and tying up loose ends.  Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are good choices for the lead roles, but Paul Giamatti is near-perfect at the skeptical journalist hearing their story.  Best of all, perhaps, for fans of the novel is how the film is only a partial adaptation: the second half of the book is nearly missing from the film, an important half of the plot having been skillfully amputated.  This gives enough space for an already-madcap accumulation of details in the film, and leaves a pleasant surprise to fans of the film wishing to read the book. 

John Dies at the End, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

<em class="BookTitle">John Dies at the End</em>, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

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?