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Randall Reads: John Dies at the End, but the Story Dies Much Earlier Than That

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

And, really, I’m not sure John does die at the end!

The first few days I was reading this, it seemed destined to land in the rare air of 4- or 5-stars. Using Goodreads’ tags for star ratings, those numbers are reserved for “really liked it” and “it was amazing,” respectively. I don’t say either of those things about books (or movies, or songs, or much of anything for that matter) lightly. Hence, when we’re talking about a work that is tagged as being “genre fiction, it was really shaping up to be quite the coup.

Unfortunately, the novel is split into two connected books, with “Book II: Korrock” not holding up to the promise and pacing that makes “Book I: They China Food!”

I first came across David Wong’s (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) novel through a list of “The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium.”  My relationship to horror writing is somewhat responsible for my love of reading, in general, as Stephen King was the man who motivated me to pick up a book and read it of my own volition (WAY back in the early 1980’s when I was actually young.

THIS cover!

I realize fully this is far from a unique story.

30 years and a degree in English Language and Literature did little to keep me closely connected to my first literary love. The list was serving to remind me that I once preferred horror novels to all others.

Hopefully, nobody has walked away already thinking I’ve ever thought of horror (or fiction of any genre, for that matter) as less worthy of readership than anything else. I don’t think that in the slightest.

I DO think, however, that the style of writing in much of what falls into some genres could simply be better. It turns out that, while I love a good, fun story, my enjoyment of it is exponentially increased when the use of language to tell it is considered.

I also tend to want deeper character development than I often see, but that’s not as important to me in these situations.

So…where was I? Yes, the list.

Who doesn’t love a list? Even when you get mad at the injustice of your favorite potential list member being excluded, you still love the list. This seemed like a good resource for finding a book to help me reconnect with a somewhat-lost love.

“John Dies at the End” was the first book in the list at #25. Between the quirky title and cover photo, I was already pretty much sold. Hence, my chuckling at the inclusion of terms like “penis doorknobs” and “demonic wiggers” in the description was just so much drawing a design into the frothy milk atop the latte: nice, but not necessary.

You’ll get immediately that this story is told in a humorous voice. I mean, did you miss the mention of “penis doorknobs.” In a sense, the voice makes this a bit less a horror novel than what I’m used to, which is as good an illustration as to the completely daft nature of trying to slap a label on everything in the first place.

Then again, what scared me when I was 10-years-old is unlikely to scare me now, eh?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the book due to a bit of immature humor, however. While it’s there, I wouldn’t say it’s too pervasive other than in a few moments. Without giving too much away, when John (of the title) essentially attacks captors with the feces being sprayed from a dog’s rear end, it doesn’t seem slapstick-y; it actually works in context.

The problem here is more one of structure.

“They China Food!” moves at a great pace, heavily seasoned with action scenes and comedic moments. When it ended, I was completely satisfied with pretty much everything about it. The author did a great job of developing a mythology around his two protagonists—John and David (the purported author of the book)—while setting things in motion at a quick clip with several memorable scenes that will undoubtedly be excellent scenes in the upcoming film of the same name.

Unfortunately, you don’t get too far into “Korrock” before realizing that the author had a great, fun story to tell, but then needed to scramble the characters into another scenario to get to novel length.

The book’s afterword, in which Pargin tells the story of how the novel was hatched as a part-time online venture that caught fire via word-of-mouth recommendations, would seem to indicate that converting the online product to a novel necessarily created unique challenges. As tight and fast-paced as the first part of the book is, the second part is at least equally as sprawling and dragging. My overall impression of the book on the whole likely suffers from the comedown from the first part, which is vastly superior, in my opinion.

See?

That being said, I look forward to the recently released sequel: This Book is Full of Spiders, because even with the structural issues I had with John Dies at the End the final accounting leaves you with a fun, new voice working the under-served confluence area of horror, comedy, and science-fiction. The adventures of John and David are unlikely to appeal to all comers, but for the right audience, this novel hits a lot of the right notes.

Plus, Wong knows a little something about covers and titles, yeah?

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