I have a very strong love/hate relationship with the expanded Lovecraft mythos. The work of the early 20th Century master of weird fiction has prompted the creation of some incredible fiction in the years since his death. It has also led to quite a bit of boring, derivative, almost exploitative fiction that took Lovecraft's name and mangled his characters into gory scenarios that never would have received so much attention. The most commonly used concept from Lovecraft's oeuvre is Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones. They are, in essence, a series of forgotten gods that can be brought back to Earth through dark rituals involving a lot of strange words mostly comprised of consonants. They are destructive and frightening. Enter David Wong. Or should I say, enter Jason Pargin. Pargin decided one day to write a story about his best friend and him fighting a monster made of meat and post it online. Over a period of a few years, he cranked out story after story about an imagined alternate universe with nonstop paranormal activity where he and his friend are the only people who can fight off the growing evil in the world. Permuted Press (one of my favorite publishers) did a short run print of John Dies at the End that sold out (like most Permuted Press runs) quickly. The novel happened into the hands of Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep). He bought the film rights immediately. St. Martin's Press acquired the rights to re-release the book and now it's readily available in book stores across the country. I should know: I accidentally bought two copies.
The book is presented as a memoir of sorts. On the inside cover, David warns the reader to put the book down, walk away, and pretend they never heard of the "soy sauce." He promptly drops the warning and mentions knowledge of the drug guarantees your life will be ruined. Once in the book, the story switches between the bizarre events in the lives of John and David and the present, where David is trying to convince a reporter that all the weird stories about Korrok, shadow people, and--yes--meat monsters are true.
The reporter device works wonders for the novel. This is a character who wants to believe what David is telling him but can't put aside his doubts that everything he's being told is a big joke without any proof. In a way, he's right. The shadow people have a way of correcting the universe to erase their presence. Minutes, hours, days, week, even months can disappear from a person's memory with no explanation. People slip through the cracks and the world is altered in strange ways that only witnesses to the event causing the change can understand. The reporter is our surrogate in the novel. He lets us express our doubts in a way that advances the narrative.
John Dies at the End is a unsteady mix of horror and comedy. You are just as likely to laugh at a ridiculous device in the novel--like the shadow people hating music--as you are to become frightened by a bizarre concept--like the nature of soy sauce. The humor is immature frat humor, which works as the 20-something leads of the novel never grew up. They make dirty jokes, hit each other, and do stupid things. It is perhaps the most realistic element in the novel and what pushed me to keep reading.
Unfortunately, the novel reads as an episodic adventure. This isn't always a bad thing, but it becomes tiresome when each of the three main episodes has almost identical story structure and pacing. I don't want to ruin the arcs for anyone, so I won't diagram them here. I will point out that the first 143 pages of this novel are the tightest, most thrilling pages I've read since Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. Sure, I might have gotten to John Dies at the End two years after it was published, but that means three years have passed since Hill's breakout novel. The point is, once I hit page 145, I stopped reading. In a few paragraphs, the story felt so tired and repetitive, I had to take a break. There are some interesting developments in the second episode, but its structure is far too similar to the first. The third episode takes some rewarding variations on the structure. However, if I didn't force myself to return to the book when it turned me off, I would never have read them. I've walked away from better-written books for far milder offenses; it is a testament to the creative energy of John Dies at the End that I returned at all. I had to know if, in fact, John died at the end.
Pargin created a very self-referential novel. When things become a bit too reminiscent of a well-known idea, he acknowledges it. For example, when David and John describe the watchful eye of Korrok to another character, that character makes the link to H.P. Lovecraft. I find it hard to imagine that Pargin wasn't thinking of Lovecraft when he wrote the novel. The difference from other works on the fringe of the Lovecraft Mythos is this: Pargin's work is his own. Cthulhu doesn't pop up out of nowhere when you stare at a crack the wrong way and no one uncovers the Necronomicon. Instead, John and David take a weird living drug called soy sauce that lets them see another dimension of existence. This invites these "other" beings into the Earthly realm.
Pargin really tries to balance the humor with the horror, but when he tips his hat too far in either direction, he breaks character. There are moments where I believe the character of David Wong because he acts like a normal young guy making bad decisions. Then there are moments where he transforms into Professor David with a PHD in Literature; everything in the environment is described in worldly detail, vocabulary is used that took me--a word nerd--by surprise, and musings are made on the nature of life and death by way of variations on classic literature. There is nothing in the text before or after these moments to suggest that David has this knowledge. It's unjustified "look how fancy I am" writing. Coming from someone who butters his bread with "look how fancy I am" writing, I'd say it's a big problem in the novel.
None of this is to say this is a bad novel. It's good. Very good, even. The problem is, for something that started so inventive and refreshing in the horror landscape, it quickly falls prey to the trappings of a first novelist. Considering this is a first novel, I'm not surprised. I'm just a little disappointed. I'll even admit that it's unfair to expect so much from a debut novelist.
Like Sarah Langan, Jason Pargin took a lot of risks with his first book and it's worth reading in spite of its flaws. I can only hope he continues to write fiction when he can as there is an authorial voice waiting to break out with the right project hidden in John Dies at the End. I suggest reading it yourself to see that potential up close and personal.