Book Review: John Dies at the End

Crooked because I took a picture

We all love a good odd couple: Monk and Sharona, Han and Chewie, Comedy and Horror. John Dies at the End follows the tradition of modern dark comedies such as Hot Fuzz, Zombieland, and Tucker and Dale vs Evil. Sometimes you’ll split your sides laughing. Others, you’ll want to vomit. Either way, it doesn’t look good for your intestines. Hey, you and the characters have that in common!

This book is a hilarious, terrifying, and absolutely wild ride. Let’s talk about it.

The Basics:

Title: John Dies at the End
Author: David Wong (Jason Pargin)
Genre: Horror, Comedy, Urban Fantasy
Published: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Dave Wong and his friend John are two disenfranchised twenty-somethings living in an aggressively unnamed (UNDISCLOSED) small town in the Midwest. Oh, and you did read that correctly: the POV character’s name is the same as the “author’s”. This is one of those classic confessional style horrors, like Dracula or nearly anything by Lovecraft. A series of bad decisions after an underfunded and underattended local music festival infuses them with an alien drug they dub ‘Soy Sauce’. This living black goo grants them the ability to see the interdimensional horrors that live among us… and draws the attention of a dark being intent on chaos and conquest.

Initially, the friends just try to survive the first night under the influence of the eldritch intoxicant. However, the night refuses to leave them be. As time crawls forward, horrifying forces from another universe invade not only their world, but their personal lives and their very minds.

Photo by Stephan Mu00fcller on

Why This Book Is For You:

Dave and John’s journey is a slow-building mystery. It lulls you into a sense of Halloween-carnival fun with comically over-the-top monsters before turning up the existential terror one degree at a time. A few hundred pages in, you realize you’re not laughing anymore. If you’re genre-savvy in either urban fantasy or horror, John Dies… will play with your expectations in delightfully surprising ways. Wong’s words thoroughly capture the essence of a slow descent into madness by riddling the narrative with subtle inconsistencies which force the reader to constantly re-interpret everything that came before.

From a portal to hell at a self-help conference to gorilla-crab centaurs, this story goes unapologetically hard and never lets up. For every time I laughed to myself, I held the book at arms length and grimaced at least twice. It is hard to tell who has less mercy on the ill-used protagonists: the dark forces aligned against them, or Wong.

Content Warning:

It would be irresponsible to discuss this book without giving you, reader, the opportunity to know what you’re getting into. First, while yes, this is a mystery, an adventure, a coming-of-age, and a comedy, it is primarily horror, and these elements are, well.. horrifying. The more pertinent element, however, is that this book is written in a deep first-person POV in the voice of a poverty-stricken twenty-something from a broken home and city circa 2010. They use the “R” word at least twenty times, and the “N” word twice. At times, the main character expresses sympathy for people who anyone with an empathetic bone in their body would consider morally repugnant. I was personally uncomfortable reading these passages, and might not have picked it up had I known ahead of time. Your mileage may vary.

If you don’t want to live in that antihero, shades-of-gray territory, perhaps try literally any other title reviewed in this space. What’s your cup of tea? Action? Mystery? Romance? Drama?

Where Can You Learn More?

I haven’t seen it, but they made a movie from this novel. Check it out, if you dare. As always, check out the rest of this series and Jason Pargin’s backlog at his web site, fittingly named after this book.

Happy reading, folks.

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