June 16, 2012


by David Wong
480 pages, Titan Books

Review by Pat Black

That’s a spoiler. I think.

Anyway, just by reading this review, you’re infected. By soy sauce. Not the stuff you pour into the stir fry to stop it sticking to the pan, but a strange, sentient liquid that affects the brains of its users. It’s like a drug, but it’s not. It opens up a portal to hell, in your mind. Demons emerge from it; some of them subtle, shadowy fiends who float around like ghosts in negative, and some of them (literally) eye-popping monsters, hairy, tentacled, slimy, breathing fire and emitting greenhouse gases, to be dispatched with shotguns, holy water, silver bullets and 1980s power rock ballads.

If you hadn’t already guessed, John Dies At The End is a less-than-conventional novel detailing how our narrator, David Wong, fights back against the forces of darkness which over-run his world after he is infected with the soy sauce after a needlestick accident at the home of his friend, John – he of the fatalistic title.

Actually it’s a misnomer, as John actually dies at the start of this book, too. And possibly at more than one other point from start to finish. Even though he lives all the way through it. That might sound clear as ectoplasm. Bear with me, though.

John and Dave are slackers… Or rather, a whole generation on from what I take to be slackers. They’re in their mid-twenties, bright but not academically inclined, given to playing video games, drinking beer and eating junk food all night, having relationships sporadically but with an in-built knowledge that women are better than them in every single way. Self-loathing, childhood issues and mental health problems are as standard, certainly with Dave. John wears his difficulties – mainly of the social variety - lightly, and is an excellent devil-may-care best friend.

The devil may care in this novel, of course, even though he isn’t directly referenced. Dave and John are first introduced to the soy sauce by way of a black man with a fake Jamaican accent, calling himself Robert Marley, naturally, who spooks the young and the not so beautiful of Undisclosed, the American mid-western town in the tale, by pushing soy sauce onto them during a hellish rock concert. When Robert blows up in a storm of pink goo and guts, and the people who took the soy sauce start dying or seeing rather awful things, the story picks up. What are the soy sauce infected people seeing, what is the secret attached to it, and what are the demons up to?


After an evil road trip to Las Vegas and a set-piece involving a shoot-out with flying wig monsters, Dave and John begin to form a kind of paranormal spook-busting partnership, helping out the baffled local police as paranormal incidents begin to increase throughout the neighbourhood. There’s a bit of X-Files in that, but also a great deal of Scooby Doo, too. As events begin to escalate, they also seem to grow more and more personal to Dave.

Which is problematic, because Dave is our narrator. The story is framed with the device of our guide taking a journalist through it from start to finish. The journalist is sceptical – picking up on many inconsistencies or oddities in Dave’s incredible story. This was very smart on the part of the author. More than once, Wong asks us if we are really paying attention to the story all the way through. Did you forget about a background character, for instance? Someone who got a bit lost in the shootout? Well, the journalist didn’t. Keep up, won’t you?

It’s an inventive, brilliant book, with lots of mind-bending moments and surreal horror. For example, John dies at the start – then he calls Dave to explain why he died, and how to make contact with him again through the medium of a dog called Molly. Dave uses a hotdog as a phone at this moment.  

Later, John reappears in the narrative, completely unscathed. So does Molly the dog, despite exploding in a foamy burst of fur and pink goo. This is the type of novel where people explode in pink goo all the time. Then they go on to reappear, completely unexploded and with all their goo intact.

It’s a very funny book, with some unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments and crackling movie dialogue. For something featuring appalling moments of violence and horror, there is great fun to be had – jokes so good you’ll repeat them to your friends, prefacing them with: “I’ve read this fantastic book…”

Wong maintains his tone throughout, which is the key problem with stories which seek to blend dread and scares with big laughs and chuckles. It’s tough to write a funny and scary book.

Because it is a scary book – not so much when it comes to monsters and demons and ghosts, but more to do with the idea that hell exists, in our minds. The childhood traumas and fears that never leave us, the hang-ups and insecurities that we settle into in adulthood, the regret and remorse we cannot let go in our maturity – these are the things that haunt us and torment us, Wong points out, not spooks and monsters. And we’re right to be frightened by these things. Especially the harms visited upon us by evil people.

Because imagine if they did have souls, and lived forever? Imagine all that malice, existing forever, and victimising you forever. What can you do about that? There, surely, is hell. And it doesn’t look like there’s a heaven to balance it.

There’s some depth in among all the mayhem, too. As a document looking at lost generations – going nowhere fast, let down by the education system, unable to get decent, well-paying jobs, hailing from fractured families and going on to have dead-end relationships if they’re lucky – it’s a far more poignant book than it might first appear.

It’s also a heartening piece of work. The author – real name not David Wong – was battering away at this book while working on his website, cracked.com. What was first a hobby and a bit of fun grew and grew and grew online, became a bit of a monster itself, and now here I am – reviewing the physical copy on Booksquawk. He’s also got a movie deal under the belt. He’s got fans.

It can be done, people. It can be done. Demons be damned!

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