John Dies At the End is a strange novel which defies explanation, but can best be described as a form of comic horror. Originally published as a free web serial, starting in 2004, the novel was eventually published in paperback form in 2007 and the free online versions were removed in 2008. The novel is written by David Wong, an alias of Jason Pargin, notable for being editor for the Cracked website, through which I first heard of the novel. The novel follows David Wong, the character, and his best friend John which sees them gaining supernatural powers via a supernatural sauce. They are subsequently thrown onto a madcap adventure, where they are forced to fight off a variety of supernatural threats, including the servants of the mighty Korrok.
The most notable aspect of the novel is how it meshes together humour and horror. Most novels which I would previously classify as comedic horror have usually done the humour at the expense of horror but John Dies At The End is different. Somehow it strikes the perfect balance. One minute you’re laughing your socks off and another your shitting yourself. Sometimes you’re even doing both. Quite a fair number of the enemies they encounter tend to be both scary and funny at the same time, and are part of the novel’s charm.
In terms of structure it is clear to see that the novel is adapted from a serialised narrative, with the story being split into multiple parts each dealing with their own central conflict. Yet these seem to add up to their own story all the same, giving the novel as a whole a unified structure all the same. The story is told mostly through a frame narrative, where Dave is interviewed by a reporter named Arnie. The novel frequently skips in time and uses these skips to hide information from the viewer, something which I found rather clever.
The narration itself is very matter of fact and Dave is shown early on to be a somewhat biased and unreliable as a narrator. As the novel goes on he begins to experience blanks in her memory and at one point he thinks he may have killed someone, at least until that character turns up alive and well. At first you are lead to believe that he and John have a crazy guy and sane guy thing going on, but it quickly becomes apparent that Dave is probably has his fair share of issues as well. The big thing for me was at the end, where it becomes apparent that Dave had actually been replaced by a clone partway through the novel and that the Dave that had been communicating after that point was in fact the fake Dave, who was unaware that he was a copy. This twist completely threw me on a loop since you assume that Dave had survived due to his presence in the frame narrative but the novel managed to invent a twist which managed to take that assumption and turn it on its head. It seemed rather pointless in the grand scheme of things but I liked it all the same and fit pretty well into the work’s black comedy tone.
To be honest, the twists in the plot are really what sell this novel. Predictably, John actually survives at the end, though he does temporarily die near the beginning of the novel. The big evil Korrok, turns out to have the personality similar to that of a modern day internet troll, in what was the ultimate laugh out loud moments in the novel yet at the same time makes him somewhat scary at the same time. The funniest twist, at least second to the Dave being a clone twist, was Arnie the reporter. In true black comedy fashion Arnie believes Dave’s story fully but turns out to have died on the journey there and Dave has to inform him that he is in fact dead. Arnie subsequently disappears without ever getting the chance to print Dave’s story. Generally this twist creates a lot of laughs and once again twists the expectations with the frame narrative.
Put simply this novel is amazing. As a whole I don’t really have a lot to say against this novel, except that a lot of bit time characters seem to disappear from the narrative after a while but that is consistent with the novel’s matter of fact tone, since Dave can’t be expected to keep track of everyone he’s met on his journey. This novel is not only a brilliant work of comedy but probably one of my favourite horror novels as a whole. This novel is probably one of my favourite modern novels, even after several rereads. I would recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of horror and wants something original on their shelves.
IN A WORD: HILARIOUS