“The dark things lurking in the night don’t haunt old houses or abandoned ships. They haunt minds.”
Take H.P. Lovecraft’s queasy cosmic horror, throw it at Shaun of the Dead and stir in a dollop of the Scary Movie franchise and you probably get something resembling John Dies at the End.
It’s an entry in the “humorous horror” genre, with a highly episodic, even random, plot revolving around a mysterious extraterrestrial drug known as soy sauce. The drug heightens users’ consciousnesses to superhuman levels, and is apparently nebulously connected to a plot by creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions to invade the universe. Our Unlikely Heroes are John and Dave, deadbeat employees at a video rental store: John is the drug-taking fantasist, Dave the more down-to-earth Ordinary Guy who just wants a bit of peace and quiet.
The plot, typically for this kind of thing, is not really very interesting, consisting as it does mainly of short bursts of hectic and hyperviolent monster-fighting (complete with metaphorically technicolour guts n’ blood) followed by extended periods of reluctant sleuthing and “banter”.
What is (mildly) interesting is the representational instability that seems to be going on here.
Like a lot of horror, John Dies at the End generates – or attempts to generate – a kind of eeriness through a “found footage” aesthetic: an aim at verisimilitude that actually, of course, only serves to heighten the textuality of the book. So both author and protagonist are called David Wong (the author’s actual name is Jason Pargin, more on which below); the protagonist’s hometown is referred to as Undisclosed, to protect the identities of those who dwell therein; events not directly witnessed by Dave are reported by him in a way that specifically flags up their unreliability; most of the story is being told to a reporter who’s not quite what he seems. It’s a text partly interested in self-representation, in its own textuality.
Why is this important? As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the primary target for John Dies at the End‘s somewhat underbaked humour is Lovecraft: Lovecraft the racist, Lovecraft the misogynist, Lovecraft who feared the flesh and the other. Stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” are invested in casting the white man as the norm, with foreigners and mouthy women as monsters. These are very personal texts: in them, we see Lovecraft creating a patriarchy, re-inscribing his privilege on those who are othered.
John Dies at the End, though not, of course, so blatant, is riddled with similar acts of marginalisation. I can only recall two minor black characters in the book: one of them is a cop possessed by an evil creature from the Dungeon Dimensions who tries to burn Dave alive; the other is a skeevy Rastafarian magician who brings the soy sauce, and thus DOOM, to the town of Undisclosed. David Wong, our author-protagonist? Not actually Chinese: he chose the name “Wong” because it’s the most common surname in the world, which will apparently make him harder to track down. (Notice how that is an act of self-creation: an appropriation of the positive aspects of a marginalised identity which absolves Dave from experiencing the negative aspects, i.e. all the racism directed towards Chinese people – in stories like “The Horror at Red Hook”.)
And then there’s the misbegotten romance between Dave and Amy, a college-age woman who’s written throughout as fragile, naïve, young, in need of protection. She’s missing a hand, and the narrative is full of scenes of her struggling with opening bottles and the like: it focuses on what she can’t do rather than what she can do. The relationship Dave develops with her feels more fatherly than romantic: she’s constantly infantilised, with Dave going through the unpleasantly Edward Cullen-ish ritual of Pushing Her Away to Save Her, as if she’s unable to make her own decisions.
So, like Lovecraft, Pargin is constructing white maleness as superior. But, unlike in Lovecraft’s texts, there is narrative pushback; generated partly by that unreliable narration, that unstable textuality; partly by the background of cosmic horror that isn’t easily conquered and isn’t easily rendered into a binary other, as Lovecraft’s original female and POC others are separated into actual presences in the story; and partly by moments such as Amy’s cheerfully ignoring Dave’s attempts to push her away from him (she can indeed make her own decisions). If Lovecraft’s stories are impositions of a patriarchy that remained strong throughout his historical era, then John Dies at the End sees that patriarchy, that self-representation, under threat from the realisation that it cannot hold the world stable under its control.
None of this, of course, excuses the book’s failures of representation, or the fact that it just isn’t very interesting. If “Lovecraft in modern-day America” is your thing (and, let’s be honest, why wouldn’t it be?) you’re much better off with an episode of Welcome to Night Vale.