David Wong isn’t his real name, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the soy sauce, which isn’t really soy sauce, exactly, but a kind of drug that opens up perceptions to the point where its users—David Wong, for instance—can suddenly see once and for all just how deeply screwed up nearly everything in the universe is. Like the shadow people who can only be seen by not looking at them, or the white worms that devour their victims inside, until some hapless mortal explodes from the pressure. Or the floating jellyfish, or the dog who dies but then isn’t dead anymore. There’s also more exploding. It’s worth mentioning exploding twice, really, because that kind of thing happens a lot around David and his best friend John. It’s like being stuck at the world’s longest Gallagher concert, with cadavers standing in for watermelons.
John Dies At The End, by David Wong (a.k.a. Jason Pargin, editor-in-chief at Cracked.com), started life online, and Permuted Press published a paperback edition in 2007. The new hardcover edition comes with added text, and it’s the sort of story that’s meant to be read in one or two breathless, eye-watering sittings. After a few chapters of fractured chronology, the first-person narration settles into a familiar rhythm. Once upon a time, David was a boring video-store clerk without much of a social life. Then one day, his pal John got involved with that soy sauce that wasn’t really soy sauce, dragging David along for the ride. A number of suspicious deaths later, the two are fighting off monsters from another dimension and trying to come up with ways to explain an ever-increasing number of corpses to the authorities.
JDATE is the rare genre novel that manages to keep its sense of humor strong without ever diminishing the scares; David is a consistently hilarious narrator whose one-liners and running commentary are sincere in a way that makes the horrors he confronts even more unsettling. Plot-wise, for a good two-thirds of the book, it seems like Wong is more interested in piling on weirder and weirder threats than fitting the pieces together, and while his invention never flags, the accumulation of horrors eventually threatens to turn the narrative into a breathless series of “And then?”s. Still, the tone and white-knuckle pacing cover up a lot of sins, and Wong manages to pull everything together for a finale that’s both stomach-churningly freaky and oddly moving. It’s the sort of thing that leaves readers breathless and nauseous, but surprisingly hungry for more.