Random Thought 'Reviews': John Dies at the End

(Novel by David Wong)
Biased Perception Thoughts by Jasmine Sailing

Written on: December 12, 2012

Spoilers: I don’t actually talk about the book much. ;) The problem is that I talk about perspectives of reading it caused by the writing style, with help from various personal factors. Which in turn causes me to mention my perception of the reality of the story, from beginning to end. I do a similar thing in a brief one paragraph mention of the anime Chaos;Head. If you already plan to read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this first. If you won’t read it without some motivation, this might help. If you don’t want to read the book, maybe you’ll enjoy the unreliable narrator commentary and/or some of my real life hallucinatory tales toward the end of this ramble.

I had just met my son’s girlfriend Ashlee, who was pregnant with my first grandchild, and she wanted me to read this book. My son was in the midst of reading it, but also thought I should. Due to the former part, I figured it would be best if I did. I can be a difficult arm twist, though, and a world class procrastinator. When my son mentioned that there was a film and Ashlee really wanted to see it, I looked it up for them on imdb. Then I failed to find showings on local indie film sites, which later proved to be because it wasn’t showing yet.

Well, we all got to see Iron Sky. Unrelated, and I was the pusher in that instance (Laibach!), but it was during the same time period and it was at the theatre that later premiered the film of this book. I haven’t seen the John Dies film yet. I would’ve needed to read the book first, by my own rules that I sometimes even stick to.

The reason for mentioning the film: multiple recommendations are often necessary for motivating me to read, watch, listen to, have nightmares about, whatever, new things. The final recommendation came when I looked at imdb and noticed that Don Coscarelli was directing it. My immediate comments to my son: “Oh, it should be a fun film then. If you’re worried about book similarities, don’t think about the book... it and the movie can be fun in their own unique ways”.

The words of someone who appreciates having been deeply warped by Phantasm as a young child. ;)

And not something I would say often. At that point I was pretty much ready to give the book a try, but Ashlee had given up on me and was re-reading it herself. Oops! It’s just that I’d been finishing another book, and then family life suddenly changed dramatically. I was distracted. And I was trying to finish creating a Cnidarian ebook. Life is always complicated.

I got the book back right in time to have missed Don Coscarelli hosting a screening of the film. Fortunately the kids got to enjoy it, and get congratulated by Don on the pregnancy, and all of that fun stuff. I don’t know if I would have gone up to say hi to him. I might’ve thought about my John Carpenter experience and blanched, despite liking Phantasm and BubbaHotep more than any John Carpenter films. They both made scary movies that I saw too many times as an impressionable urchin (Phantasm and Halloween). That’s enough of a connection to cause hesitation.

I’d looked up the film out of “necessity”, but I dislike spoilers and had avoided learning anything about the story or the author. I went into it with a completely open mind. And with low expectations. I was finishing yet another book when it was re-loaned to me, so I asked Bruce to read it first. He took long enough that finishing my book left me with enough time to decide I needed to read a book related to the one I’d just finished.

And then Bruce told me John Dies was fun, it wasn’t great, he could see why the youngsters like it. Ok, that would basically mean it wasn’t William S. Burroughs or Phillip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard or even Robert Anton Wilson. Check. It’s hard to be them.

Then, miraculously, I finally started reading it.

On page 4 (hardback) I thought “Is this a speed psychosis story?”. On page 24 the setting town was described. Midwest town in tornado alley. Nothing anyone could’ve said or done would’ve convinced me that the story had nothing whatsoever to do with speed at that point.

The problem with my assumptions: to explain why I thought those things would mean, well, explaining why I thought them. Much of what I could say would qualify as “the types of things you write about in fiction instead of in rambling web commentaries about books”. But the parts I will tell in broad non-fiction daylight are probably parts you’re likely to think I would evade. Unless, of course, you know me.

For now, let’s say the title is a good set-up. “John Dies at the End”. I had no idea what to make of that, especially courtesy of numerous similar anime episode titles. Either the title is 100% straight forward, the character dies within the episode, and it’s all rather spoilsome. Or the character almost dies. Or the character dies and resurrects (eventually). Or it was a joke title and had nothing to do with reality. Or they wanted to sucker you with the title, either to mess with your head or to get you riled up so whatever actually does happen in the episode gets more of a rise out of you than it normally would. Or it’s to distract you from nothing at all actually happening.

Regardless of what actually happens, a “someone dies” title (unless, of course, you know in advance that you hate the person and want them to die) doesn’t put you in the most positive possible mindset. You don’t think you’ll be reading a story where everyone picks daisies and then rides off on unicorns. Well, it doesn’t make me think that.

I also enjoy stories with unreliable narrators. They greatly enhance how you process the story, and the number of ways you need to look at them. For me, it’s not at all a bad thing to find myself questioning “Is this one of those ‘speed psychosis + who knows what other drug damage + mental and/or emotional problems + imaginative people getting caught up in each other’s imaginations’ types of things, or is it a ‘this is really happening’ type of story?”.

I often need to ask myself the same thing about my mid-teen years. Right now I’m definitely thinking of the “friends, many of us admittedly on acid often enough, all of us definitely unstable, getting caught up in each other’s vivid imaginations” scenarios that I’m not getting into here. Essentially what I’m pondering in regards to both my teen years and this book is “how many people managed to set each other off into seeing, feeling, believing, etc, how many things that didn’t actually happen?”.

Take the short anime series Chaos;Head, for instance, because it also made me think about my teens a lot. No, there isn’t any speed there. You have an extremely unreliable narrator who surrounds himself with characters who would also make unreliable narrators. And they’re all pretty impressionable. There’s not much of the show’s story that I believe actually happened, but at the same time I understand that it was very real for the characters. Which, in a way, makes a story real no matter how unreal it might be.

There’s one additional “problem” with the narrative in John Dies: the narrator admits that he makes shit up sometimes. I enjoyed it when Dave (our humble narrator) relayed a story told to him by John and spent a great deal of time pointing out that John isn’t a reliable narrator. John seemed to be a braggart, but in a lot of ways he seemed (to me) more reliable than the narrator. If he wasn’t simply a figment of the narrator’s paranoid imagination, anyway. He was the one who took care of the “if we die” requests while Dave was blacking out. I bet he had Dave grow a goatee and walk around being mysterious (as he was), without pointing out why they were doing it. Amy only said John came by to check in on her, and granted she was who knows how addled on multiple prescriptions... but I think she was lonely enough to know if one or both of them had been bothering to visit.

But all of those clues could be made up shit, anyway. The characters I’m getting clues from could be made up shit. No matter how much more reliable I felt John was, I also had a difficult time truly believing he existed.

So, let’s see where my narrative verdicts are sitting at the end of the book... I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea, and I don’t care. I spent the entire book reading it in multiple tracks. I could simultaneously worry about both the horror of “if some to a lot of this is really happening”, and “if this guy is seriously delusional and will kill everyone around him”. And, in the process, I spent a hell of a lot of time analyzing details. It’s a bad habit, albeit often an entertaining bad habit that I enjoy. Sometimes it’s an annoying habit that makes me think I should go distract myself by writing fiction.

My scene reactions weren’t anything that could be considered remotely consistent.

When Drake came out ranting, being weird, and urinating about Mulholland Drive I laughed and thought “That could easily be a normal reaction to someone convincing you to watch that movie with your young daughter”. But then when Dave was riding home with Not Fred Durst, and getting chided by him, I thought “Not Fred’s the dog... Molly!”. It seemed so obvious, but our unreliable narrator didn’t join me in thinking it. I felt lonely. ;) The reality of the story was very flexible for me, and for that matter I consistently pictured the dog as a black and white border collie even though she was constantly described as a red possible Labrador. I always caught and tried to correct the image (often seeing an Irish Setter first in the process, and then thinking about “Scottish Rusthound”), but it kept popping into my head anyway.

I spent a lot of time wondering how differently characters were seeing things, without them noticing that they were seeing them differently than others were. And looking for any little detail that might tell me anything.

It’s an entertaining read. It isn’t Valis. In fact, it’d be a shame if you didn’t read Valis first. I finished re-reading Valis earlier this year, so I was good on that front.

One reason I kept wanting to think about speed (not that I didn’t also think of excessive alcohol and its impact on your biochemistry, and hallucinogenics, and night terrors, and trauma, and many other things) is that my only instances of spending a lot of time trying to get someone to see something I saw vividly, while they were staring at it and seeing nothing, were speed-related moments.

One time was shortly before my 17th birthday when I had ODed on... something. At the time I thought it was crystal, but looking back later in life I knew by the size of the bags (yes, bags) that it was actually something a lot cheaper. Maybe crushed white crosses cut with some horror I’m better off not knowing about. Most people got high on it and left it at that. One guy was reckless enough to keep snorting it all night with me, until we were both having bad black-outs and forgetting how to breathe. Whatever it really was... it was definitely speed of some sort, and we had way too much of it.

The next night (I mostly recall being capable of nothing but lying down on a huge pillow in front of the air conditioner and asking questions like “When is the 4th of July?” during the day), some of my friends found a hit of acid. 2 of them, who had been more sensible the previous night, took 1/4 hits. They informed us that it was bunk. My fellow ODer and I took 1/4 hits... and wound up on completely whacked out bad trips.

There was one moment of beauty amidst the horrors of that night for me. I opened the front door to walk out and saw countless ethereal silver streamers in the sky, and draping over a large tree. I can’t describe the vision to its credit, but it was absolutely beautiful. Therefore I oohed and aahed and called someone over to see it. No matter how excitedly I told her about it, she couldn’t see it. Maybe I should’ve called over the other person who was as messed up as I was. Maybe I could’ve talked him into seeing it.

The other moment wasn’t so pretty, because it was the obligatory spider hallucination and I’m pretty arachnophobic... I live in peace with spiders, they do good work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of mentally disturbing me. Especially in weird situations like the one I saw.

This was in my early-mid 20s, which is interesting because I’d long since decided speed was Evil Incarnate and I would never ever ever touch it again. But I did touch it that once. And reaffirmed my opinion of it quite solidly enough that I never did touch it again. I wonder if it would help if I mentioned that I was unsober in 3 different ways when I somehow got talked into it, or that I wasn’t the only indulger present who had sworn off of speed. Maybe if I told the whole story of how it happened, and how utterly embarrassing it became, but that’s probably one of those “better left to fiction” stories. I did tell it at one of the Morbid Curiosity open mics at Death Equinox (as non-fiction), though.

Basically we spent the night snorting too much (real this time) crystal. Some of the people living in the apartment we were in eventually managed to convey to us that we should leave the couch we’d been twitching on all day and proceed home. One person came home with me. I have no clue how long we twitched there before I managed to go use the toilet and have my moment.

I was staring up (from the toilet) at a wavery white thing on the ceiling. It was like a drab silken sheet, but it was moving. And then positively roiling. And then 100s of baby spiders began pouring out, like the whole web sheet had encased at least a square foot or so of numerous egg sacs. I found this fascinating, because I hadn’t noticed it there before. The spiders had managed to accomplish this feat remarkably fast!

Eventually, thanks to the fear of 100s or 1000s of little spiders dropping onto me, I managed to get off the toilet and excitedly tell my friend to come look at it. From safely right outside the bathroom. He did, and he didn’t see a thing. Despite having left the room and returned, I could still see more and more little spiders churning forth – the only change in my absence was an increase in the number of them. More and more of those egg sacs were getting around to hatching, or more spiders were figuring out how to leave the protective blanket. It was completely frustrating to me that I couldn’t get him to see it. But, then, he wasn’t on all of the same other intoxicants I’d been on before we snorted speed.

PS: I could see my room from the living room. Later, various stuffed animals and other dark shapes in there mutated and came to life. That scared the heck out of me, but it wasn’t remotely as convincing as the spiders. In that case I could look at it from a different angle, and then not see it anymore.

If we revert back to the OD at age 16, I can assure you that these effects are capable of lasting, at least off and on, for an extremely long time. I was always pretty open-minded about drugs, and I didn’t conclude that speed was Evil Incarnate for the heck of it. I’m not terribly keen on being around people who are on speed, but one story I heard from people on meth and looking rather like they were into the throes of speed psychosis re-entered my mind while I was reading the book.

The paranoia they were on was, according to them, something a lot of people were verifying on the web (we all know how reliable that narrator is). And I don’t think it was long, if at all, before Shadow People became popular there. I’m not trying to compare the two (one of which I’m not identifying, but it was the white larvae that made me think of it). I’m sure almost anyone can see shadows out of the corner of their eyes (yes, that does tie into the book). You only need to have an imagination, or be a little creeped out by anything. One time, in the same apartment that I saw the spiders in, I was sitting on my bed and kept seeing the dark shape of a man come around the corner with a gun aimed at me. As far as I can recall, I was sober when that happened. But who knows if I really was (maybe I’d smoked a bowl) and it’s not likely that I had been doing a lot of being entirely sober. At the very least I had a once a week get-smashed-at-a-bar habit.

I was unnerved by that, but I wasn’t ever convinced about it like I was with the speed hallucinations. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. It’s not like I wasn’t in an old Victorian house built on a massive graveyard, in an area ripe with murderous history (everything in that last sentence is true and well-documented). And if I was a complete skeptic I clearly wouldn’t spend so much time trying to figure out what really is or isn’t happening in any given situation. Unreliable narratives wouldn’t be as much fun for me, because I wouldn’t have my own unreliable and uncertain narrative to mix them up with.

Yes, I plan to read the next book (a loan has been pre-offered). And, yes, I will watch the film. It may be brain candy, but hopefully it’s the kind of brain candy my own brain can wreak a lot of havoc with.

Verdict: Now that I’m adding a verdict ALMOST AN ENTIRE YEAR AFTER WRITING THIS (I did say I’m a world class procrastinator, didn’t I?), I have read This Book Is Full of Spiders and seen the John Dies movie. 1. This particular book is fun and worth it if you enjoy tying your own brain in knots like I did. It does have some possibly irritating low-brow humour, but it also has plenty of amusing humour. 2. This Book Is Full of Spiders is another good use of title, and because I’m an arachnophobe who had multiple bad experiences with big and/or weird spiders as a little kid I probably would’ve done the exact same thing Dave did. That book is more straight-forward and polished and almost believable for misleading reasons you’ll eventually discover... but it has a fair amount of humourous social commentary in areas I appreciate. 3. The movie. Fun and pretty loyal to the story... but I’ll warn you that if you’ve read the book you should prepare for a sudden jarring feeling of falling through a hole in a roller coaster track and landing safely near the end of the ride. The clue moment is when John says they’re going to the mall (instead of Las Vegas).

Post-note: The author was also a Phantasm fan. Phantasm, big-ass freaky spiders, midwest towns... I think the author and I have enough warpings of the young mind in common that if a 3rd book comes out I’ll read it. Maybe one already did, I’ll remember to check eventually. Eventually.

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