“Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.”
“And watch out for Molly. See if she does anything unusual. There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.” ~David Wong.
Man, no kidding. Having your dog explode can sure mess with a dude’s head. Yet that is far from the weirdest thing that happens in David Wong’s sadistically, hilariously, horrifying(ly) great novel, John Dies at the End.
I finished this novel a couple of weeks back, but still feel like I have a hangover. The good kind, like when you wake up after a night of drinking, roll over, and there’s a beautiful brunette lying beside you. The kind of hangover that’s worth it. Having said that, trying to describe this book, hell, even just a brief synopsis, seems an impossible task. Bear with me–maybe I should start at the beginning.
So, there’s these two dudes, David Wong and the aforementioned John, living the lives of your average twenties. McJob down at the video store, partying in their spare time, trying to meet hot chicks that are willing to, if not have sex with them, at least talk to them. Well, Dave is–John doesn’t seem to have much of a problem in that department. He’s in a band, and as we all know, when you’re barely out of your teens, shit like that seems cool. Especially to the ladies.
John also likes to party, never having seen a drug he’s been unwilling to try. After what might be called the “worst trip in history” courtesy of a Rastafarian drifter (whose magic tricks are suspiciously convincing) they meet at a local bush party, life for these two slackers will never be the same again. *Note to reader–never put your buddy’s used syringe in your pocket.
You see, the drug,”soy sauce,” doesn’t just mess you up–it breaks down the wall between Universes and makes a laughingstock of the rules of time. Oh, and it’s alive.
Next thing you know, both Dave and John are down at the police station answering questions from some very perturbed cops trying to explain why they have five dead (gruesomely dead) and four missing, courtesy of a party they know John was at. Dave is tripping pretty good, reading the cop’s mind (Morgan Freeman, he calls him) and worrying about Jennifer Lopez (real name, not the actress), the girl he has a crush on and also one of the missing. At that point, “Morgan” steps out of the room (apparently John has died and it’s not even the end) and Dave realizes the other cop is not what he seems. Being attacked by a mustache (yep, you read that right) will do that to you.
From there it’s a blistering ride as Dave manages to escape the jailhouse, return to the scene of the crime, find a dog (who at one point appears to be possessed by John), get shot, get abducted to Vegas with the other missing by an acolyte of “Korrok” (more on him later), witness the creation of a wormhole to another Universe and manage to close the wormhole with the help of a preacher turned magician (Dr. Albert Marconi) and a stirring rendition of a song by John’s band Three Armed Sally: “Camel Holocaust.” That’s just the first act.
Korrok is the villain of the tale, either an elder god along the lines of Cthulu…or a sentient biological computer run amok in an alternate Universe. Either way, it wants into our Universe and if Dave, John, and a few other players cannot thwart its plans…well, we’re all fucked. Korrok has agents everywhere, known as the shadow people, has replaced many of the residents of “Undisclosed” with what can only be called replicants, and an acolyte with the charming nickname of “Shitload” trying to advance its agenda of Universal domination. All of them.
Of course, there is a girl, Amy, the one-handed sister of big Jim Sullivan (deceased) and probably the only reason Dave will do his best to save the world–not that he knew this when he first met her.
I’m not doing justice to the story with this abbreviated synopsis, but it’s just too convoluted to sum up succinctly and there’s no need to spoil the fun for you. I will say that John Dies at the End meanders at times, and reads like just a bunch of stuff that happened to these two dudes, although technically it’s Dave telling his story to a skeptical journalist. Having been written haphazardly as a series of blog posts since 2001 and ballooning into a 466 page book by the time of its publishing, it seems an understandable complaint–and yet bears no relevance to whether the reader will enjoy the novel.
From start to end it’s a huge mindf*ck (sorry, I can’t think of a better term), and every time you think you’ve got your head wrapped around the storyline, something happens to make you question where the hell this is going and what actually happened before. I was within a hundred pages of the end of the novel and began to get worried that there was no satisfactory way to tie up the loose ends in the amount remaining. Really worried.
And then he did it.
One spoiler…if John dies at the end, then it’s not at the end of this book. David Wong claims to be hard at work on the sequel but for now we’ll have to be satisfied by the upcoming movie.
“You can have your precious honor or you can have your precious Darcy. One or the other must be set upon the pyre. Which it shall be I leave to you.” ~Lady Catherine De Bourgh.
Traditionally, the hallmark of a great play is the three act structure, and every novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end (unless you’re into crappy stream-of consciousness). However, when the material cannot be sufficiently covered over the course of a novel, writers seem drawn to the idea of a trilogy. Recently, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy has enthralled readers, and while not originally published as a trilogy, few would think of The Lord of the Rings otherwise. So, when Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (apologies to Jane) took off up the charts, what better way to bookend his work than to transform it into a trilogy?
The prequel, P & P & Z: Dawn of the Dreadfulswas a delightful introduction to the Bennett clan, a wittily crafted back story to the events of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a nifty explanation of how things came to be the way they are in the “Z-land” that is Regency England. Or Dreadful England, whichever you prefer. And yet, one must wonder what happened to Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy after they conquered his pride and her prejudice. Did they settle down in wedded bliss, marred only by the occasional ninja attack or Dreadful invasion? Was Elizabeth able to content herself with the domestic life, forbidden from practicing her martial arts by the conventions of polite society? Well wonder no more, because the answer lies in the sequel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.
It is a time of hopeful optimism, for the Regency is to become a Monarchy again. The madness of King George III has abated, and his re-coronation is anticipated by aristocracy and peasantry alike. For Elizabeth Bennett, it should be a happy time, married to a man she loves, living a life of relative comfort…yet something is amiss. Born and bred a warrior, she finds herself unable to indulge in her necrocidal urges, restrained by the sense and sensibility that must be adhered to as the wife of a nobleman. Decapitating Dreadfuls just isn’t accepted as a skill set a married women may practice. Darcy understands her discontent, but finds himself unable to lighten the mood, and Elizabeth spends many a day roaming the moors in hopes of a lethal (not for her) encounter.
Yet when that encounter comes, it is Darcy who is delivered the fatal blow, the death sentence that accompanies even the slightest nibble from the recently re-animated. Under the threat of losing the man who means everything to her, thoughts of discontent with her position in life vanish, and lead to a bargain with her personal nemesis…her aunt (through marriage), the lady Catherine De Bourgh. It is to Darcy’s fortune, but Elizabeth’s misfortune, that her oldest enemy might hold the key to his survival in the form of, if not a cure, a stopgap until one can be found. Elizabeth must swallow her pride and overcome her prejudice if she is to save her soul mate.
Of course, there is a price. Catherine De Bourgh is a lady in name only, and suggests a course of action that might save Darcy, yet humble Elizabeth. In London there is a doctor working on a cure for the Dreadful scourge, but he will not readily give up his secrets. Subterfuge and seduction are the route to Darcy’s salvation, by way of treachery and deception, shame and ignoble acts for Elizabeth and her family. And while they are gone, no one would expect lady De Bourgh to be idle, nor her daughter Anne. Treachery abounds. So off to London Elizabeth goes, in the guise of a wealthy (new money that is) spinster and accompanied by her uncouth father and sister (Hello Kitty!)
A word about London in the time of the Dreadfuls. It is a place of walls, a fortress city, subdivided into fortified districts, tied together only by the amazing sewer system that winds its way under the city. A place of dandies and fops, Dreadful races (literally…it does not pay to be Irish unless you can outrun a zombie) and Bedlam, both literal and figurative. In this “hospital”, residing in the sinister section twelve central, is the cure they seek, and with the help of a daring plan, sisterly love and a few ninjas, they must breach its walls if there is any hope of obtaining the cure.
The irony of this novel is that it is not so much the story of Elizabeth and Darcy as it is the coming of age of her younger sister Kitty, historically characterized as a boy hungry air head, and the humanization of her elder sister, the ever sanctimonious and bookish Mary. Away from the influence of the truly vacuous Lydia, Kitty is able to assert her own character, that of a young woman who looks at life in a light-hearted way, yet has an underlying sense of, well…sense. As for Mary, once parted from her precious books and challenged by a mysterious protector as she attempts (on her own) to discover the secrets of Bedlam, her sharp edges are softened (unlike her blades) and she develops a softer touch. For both Kitty and Mary, romance appears when least expected.
The author also introduces a variety of antagonists for the Bennetts, from the Monty Pythonesque Angus MacFarquhar, a mirthless scientist capable of hideous depravity (and considerable racism) in his quixotic quest to cure the land of their “troubles,” to the treacherous, yet troubled Nezu, leader of Catherine Debourgh’s ninjas. And then there is the mysterious beggar in a box, an agent with an agenda of his own.
What I always love about a Hockensmith novel is not so much the storylines (they are great!) but rather the approach to language. Witticisms and double entendre’s abound, and make for a smart, yet hilarious take on an otherwise somber subject. Death and mayhem are infused with a sense of both the ludicrous and hilarious, and there were many moments when I chuckled out loud at either the banter or the situations the characters find themselves in. My biggest complaint (probably the only one) is that the novel is not longer. I could have read another hundred pages of the exploits of the Bennetts before coming to the conclusion and it was with a sense of both satisfaction and regret that I finally put down the book. Like a great trilogy, it has a sense of completeness, but also leaves open the possibility of further adventures.
Steve himself speculated on the subject in a nice little interview over at Daemon’s books back in April.
And, like all Quirk Classics, it has its own trailer:
*bloggers note: In my short time as a reviewer, I’ve discovered that advanced copies of new novels are hard to come by up here in the great white North (yes, folks, Canada). Publishing houses and promotional blogs simply won’t ship across the border, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. When he saw me moaning on the subject, Steve stepped up and sent a copy for review, for which I thank him. However, life got in the way and I have finally posted much later than expected, for which I apologize.