When I was but a confused and kind of frightened college freshman living in a dorm somewhere in the high desert of New Mexico without many friends or a frame of reference, I took solace in the internet. It was kind of a cautionary prelude to the near-complete agoraphobia I currently find myself dealing with on a semi-regular basis. Honestly...I probably shoulda seen this coming. But in my sort of self-imposed exile in my room, I kept seeing this weird banner with blue eye design. It would pop up on every webcomic, every horror review site, practically everywhere I went, I was followed by this thing like a stalker follows the popular kid at school. It was more annoying than intriguing, but finally it wore me down and I clicked on it.
The site, johndiesattheend.com, contained a blackly comic novel so good that I had to spam the link as many places as I possibly could, and did so. It was a brilliant work. Not the most tightly-written thing under the sun, but hilarious, and most importantly for my impoverished ass, it was free. Later on, as kind of a "thank you", I actually bought a hardcover copy of the book. I haven't even lent my copy to anyone. And when I found the sequel This Book Is Full Of Spiders came out, I tried to pick up that. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to actually track down one I could pay for, and it wasn't until I randomly found it while looking for something else (Jack Womack's Going Going Gone) that I decided to pick it up and take it home for review. Immediately it promised a story of bizarre experiments, military intervention, and the good sort of weirdness and style that made me try to emulate it multiple times in my own work.
And sadly, it isn't as good. While still unique, and head and shoulders above most of what passes for mainstream works in the bizarro genre these days (lookin' at you, Zombies and Shit), it's a little too polished. A little too safe. The biases are worn a little more clearly on the book's sleeve. So while it's entirely readable, and rightfully so, I'm a little conflicted on this one. I'd say get it from the library or borrow it if you're curious, and then buy it if you really like it. It's certainly weird, and a good read, but the magic just wasn't there for me has much. Especially where it falls apart for me at the end.
More, as always, below
"If you had to choose, and if you were not allowed to see either ahead of time and had no other information to go on, would you rather fight Mindcrow, or Gonadulus?"
"This isn't a government operation, is it?"
- Dr. Tennet and John Cheese
The town of Undisclosed lies somewhere around the Midwestern US. It's a small town, one that still has a video store despite it being 2012, and in most ways is entirely unremarkable to the numerous inhabitants who live and work there. While the inhabitants seem a little off themselves, for the most part they're just the usual weird small-town characters who would exist anywhere with a high enough crime rate and enough bored people. In this town live two youngish men named David Wong and John Cheese. David seems unusually, impossibly average in his day to day life. He's troubled, sure, and he has this constant attitude of disdain with a side of well-contained anger, but apart from that, he seems like anyone else. His friend John is a loud, boisterous, drunken maniac who keeps a triple-barrel sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his rusted-out Cadillac and "sings" in a punk band called Three-Arm Sally. Oh-- and they also investigate weird phenomena, something that seems incredibly commonplace in the town of Undisclosed.
John and David, you see, are uniquely gifted to find the various insane phenomena in Undisclosed, having been granted visions after a horrifying drug trip they (accidentally) took a few years ago. Things have kind of settled into a routine after those events, with them doing the things they always do: Taking care of the weird phenomena, trailing the clean-cut Asian guy in the SUV who pulls vanishing acts in the restroom of the local burrito hut, and generally pissing around town. Well-- there was that incident where David shot a pizza delivery man with a crossbow because he thought it was the creepy homeless guy who decided to levitate by his bedroom window and stalk his girlfriend, but he's getting court-appointed therapy for that now, so everything's more or less good. Until the day that our intrepid heroes are peeing off the top of a water tower, and see a military-style SUV crash into a telephone pole further down the road. Upon investigation, they find that the SUV is full of GI Joe toys and a mysterious green box, and while the box is weird, it isn't anything more than an odd curiosity, even when opened.
Of course, then things get weird.
David wakes up to find some kind of huge-mouthed spider-creature climbing slowly up his legs beneath the covers. It injects him with some kind of paralytic poison, but he manages to survive the experience and traps it temporarily under a laundry basket until he and John can deal with it. Unfortunately, a police officer happens to arrive, hearing the commotion and knowing that Dave is some kind of crazy freak, and refuses to leave until he can investigate. A few scant moments later, and the police officer has had a parasitic spider climb into his mouth and take control of his brain, is sent to the hospital, and begins killing people and livestock all over Undisclosed in an attempt to infect David and John. And, were this anything other than the beginning of the plot, a rampaging cop zombie with an arachnid version of The Thing in it would make for an interesting enough story.
But, as it turns out, the "spider" is the kind of creature that can breed, and in no time at all, an outbreak of horrifying mouth-creatures is on the rise, a shadowy government organization known as REPER has taken over and quarantined Undisclosed, and anything John and David try to do to fix the situation, any of their numerous tricks gleaned from incompetently dispatching extradimensional and paranormal entities all over Undisclosed, seems to make it worse. With David locked inside the city, his girlfriend Amy on the outside of it, and John trying to devise a way to get trapped inside the quarantine to save everyone, the outlook continues to get grimmer by the moment. But there is still hope, and let's face it, the two of them have gotten better results with even less resources, so maybe, maybe, they'll be able to pull this one out all right. Or they'll doom the world to extinction by spider monsters, but either way, they have to try something.
So to start off, This Book is Full of Spiders does a good job of keeping the sense of humor and tone of its predecessor alive. David Wong does an excellent job of constantly bouncing between horror and comedy, sometimes in the same sentence, and something can be absolutely frightening after it's given a moment's thought, but be entirely hilarious the moment you think of it. A lot of the time, like David's battle against the spider-creature in his house, it can be both. Where normally this would be annoying, a book unable to make up its mind, the narrative control Wong brings to the table, as well as the sense of restraint, makes it well worth the read, and not nearly as annoying in the same way as many others who try to do the same thing. And then, there are some sequences that kind of walk the line, played completely serious, but are actually kind of weirdly funny in a way, like the weird rules the quarantined sanitarium has, rules that result in over-the-top and gory consequences. It says something that the book can actually support the adventures of both David and John without ever feeling too uneven or forced during their screen time. Through all of this, one never feels that Wong lets the narrative get away from him, or that it gets really out of control.
The other great thing about the book is the way it's paced. At the beginning of each section, a countdown starts. The chapter headings will read "48 hours until outbreak" or "8 days until the massacre at Ffirth Asylum". The countdown continues throughout the book, keeping the tension up. Because the book is more or less told in first-person by David (or in third-person focused with Amy and John), it does a good job of letting you know "Oh, by the way, this is going to happen" without actually giving away much of what happens. As the countdown ticks lower and lower, the tension of what's going to happen is ratcheted up, creating an unnerving and altogether tense race. And, part of the doom is that you know what's going to happen, but not how. There is going to be an outbreak in Undisclosed, of course there is, but what kind and how is a mystery. And, given Wong's writing style, where any given character can die at any given moment (and does, many times), it actually keeps things tense. Especially with three main characters to share narrative duties. After all, just because the brunt of the book is Dave's first-person narration, that doesn't mean that he can't pull a Lovely Bones. Or a Sunset Boulevard. Or a Time's...well, you get the idea.
However, there are a few problems with the book. Chief among them is that the book borders on author filibuster at times. It's somewhat difficult to tell whether the opinions being voiced on things like violent video games and the lack of humanity to be able to focus and/or care about each other is just the character, or whether it is the author's views. It creates some kind of weird Poe's Law whirlwind. What is more clear, however, is that the section on how video games create desensitivity to violence (a longer version of a similar rant delivered by a character in John Dies at the End) is about half as effective or intriguing as the infamous copyright rant in K. W. Jeter's Noir, and about as annoying as that one was. Part of it, I realize, is my fault, my inability to separate David Wong the character from David Wong the author from David Wong the Cracked writer. But the tirades against humanity and the idea that technology is slowly killing us, while worked into the plot developments, kind of stick out a little and kill the momentum in a way that isn't entirely welcome. The strawman sections with
Another problem with the book is that in this one, when the POV switches around from David, it doesn't feel as cohesive. While it can be useful in places, the book just sort of feels adrift. While it's useful to get Amy's point of view, for example, during the Ffirth Asylum massacre, it kind of takes away from what makes the book so appealing in the first place. The core of the book is the interactions between the three. Having the ego and superego of the group split away and spending time with them as the ego and superego of other groups of people just weakens the narrative. Where in other books with POV switches, then the insights into the group might be surprising or thought-provoking or cement the characters, but here Amy, John, and David's relationships are part of who they are as characters. Taking that away doesn't make them stronger on their own, it just weakens the story.
And finally, there's the ending. Where the book before could be excused and forgiven for its odd idiosyncrasies and crazy twists and turns, a large portion of the climax of the book is just really messy and doesn't make as much sense. It falls apart in strange explanations, contradictions, and just plain odd narrative choices. The wackiness that occurs at the end seems like a sort of tacked-on bit. The book recovers with "elegy" and "epilogue", but the third section of the book just feels...kinda forced and loose, honestly. Alien to the concept that came before it. There were some foreshadowed moments, but it just feels silly in the wrong way to turn the characters into reality-warpers able to stop time and several elements played for comedy suddenly turning into superweapons. And silly in the wrong way just kind of stops everything dead.
In the end, I think this book's effectiveness hinges on whether or not you find David Wong (the writer) as clever as Wong finds himself. Or as funny. It's clear he's on board with most of the stuff in this, including a scene where a velvet Jesus painting incinerates enemies, and if you're the kind of person who digs that kind of action, you might like it more than I did. I like that sort of thing given the proper context, and I'm sure someone like Patrick Wensink or Darren Shan could make me care about using that kind of element in the climax. But I just couldn't get behind it. I felt like I'd gone the entire book and then was rewarded not with any kind of bang, but a few shrugs and an epilogue that kind of made up for it but not really. Now, it may be wrong to damn a book on a section that's maybe a chapter at the most, but it really killed the enthusiasm of the book for me.
So find this book at the library. If you like David Wong's stuff, then pick it up. If you're curious about his stuff, then definitely pick it up from the library or as an inter-library loan. You might like it as much as I did. You might like it more than I did. The most you have to lose on any of these things is your time.
Well, and your brain to parasitic spiders. Apparently the book is full of them.
- Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
- The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett
AND MANY OTHERS. NORMAL SERVICE HAS RESUMED.