The world we exist in has, by and large, left the horror novel behind. Not to say that is not a prolific genre, but the medium is in a crisis of horrible self-awareness. The textual manner of conveying fear has never been a particularly easy one, and those who manage to do so either profitably or successfully have had their names stamped into the American consciousness.
Lovecraft made his career preying on fears both world-shattering and miniscule. While unraveling and twisting the human psyche with its own gullibility, he speaks to the fears of glorified apes hurling through a cosmos they have failed to understand. The assortment of “classic ghouls” — the Count and Frankenstein’s monster come to mind — studied the darker sides of human nature, the smiling devils and the raging brutes.
Despite the fact that we have these monsters on our mind, the modern horror novel is a rare thing. Even King has busied himself with writing more drama of late, although still throwing out the occasional short story anthology when not Scrooge McDucking his way around piles of money. You can generally attribute this drought in the market to saturation in the world of film, which has contributed to the construction of an audience that has seen every trick in existence. The jump scares that are the trademark of the bad horror movies have done nothing to advance the literary format. Unlike films, text relies on cooperation from both the author and the reader, and a brief snap in concentration can ruin a psychological environment of fear. It is in this time of disaffection for the written word that we find the novel John Dies at the End.
The narrator David Wong, also the pen-name of author Jason Pargin, relays events in a brutally cynical style, tinged with the dark thoughts of an anger-riddled, clinically depressed video store clerk. As you can imagine, such a combination of mental health difficulties makes for a retelling of events that is both unreliable and laden with the blackest of humor. The book remains subtle in its removal of pre-approved standards of horror, simply because its narrator is a believably human construct. David Wong is a kind of person everyone knows, the loner who barely gets along in social situations and always seems to be boiling over somewhere in the deep of his mind. His best and only friend, the titular John, is also relatable. Permanently hooked on every bad idea and clinging to that famous slacker cool, John is the type who would get out of a car via the sun roof and get in through the window.
“Awesomeness” is their goal, and there is little that will ever distract them from this inevitable destination. This pair of heroes is as well suited to dealing with the other dimensions as you or I, armed only with snips of movies blazing through their heads. A good example of the pair’s ability to understand the things they are up against is the name they give the devil drug that begins the adventures of the book: “soy sauce.”
The scares of the book are not the sort that will make you jump in shock. No halls will need to be gazed down to ascertain the level of monster they possess. These things should not imply that the book is not interesting; the humor is sharp, presented in wonderfully clever set ups and well-articulated details, as well as the occasional well-timed dick joke. Wong’s penchant for introversion and interruption provide an eternal wellspring of mirth, albeit a distinctly dark one. Pargin balances on the line between peril and sadism, a line that so much of today’s horror has slipped past.
If you are a dedicated fan of fear, John Dies at the End may interest you only slightly. If you consider yourself a purist, I would avoid the book. On the other hand, if you are one of the creepy crawly critters who enjoys laughing as the guts pile up and furrowing your brow as body counts rise, then I cannot recommend this book too highly. If need be, stab someone for it. Otherwise maybe just pick it up at a library or something.