This book is the fourth in a series with a label that has been expanding in a failed effort to keep pace with its central cast of characters. The original volume was John Dies at the End. Later books/editions were called “John and Dave” books, adding the name of principal narrator David Wong–an in-story pseudonym and also the pen name later abandoned by author Jason Pargin. If This Book Exists… is tagged a “John, Dave and Amy” book, including a character who has been central for previous volumes, but there is a fourth who earns poster placement rights in this installment.
Anyhow, the series consists of supernatural horror with a little science fiction, a lot of lowbrow humor, and a fair amount of unsubtle but essentially humane social commentary. I felt like this book had the most conventional plot arc of the four, despite overt courting of time travel paradoxes and multiple denouements. It didn’t make me laugh out loud as often as the earlier ones, but I experienced more odd synchronicities while reading it, which was a definite point in its favor.
There’s an evil cult to thwart in the course of the novel, and the very end (before the author’s afterword) supplies the key commandments that Dave and his pals add to the cult’s scriptures to keep them from becoming a pernicious world religion. These few pages really could stand the frank consideration of earnest “seekers,” even out of context.
The third “John and Dave” cosmic horror-comedy novel is a little closer in spirit to the first than the second, I think. The central cast of Dave, John, and Amy is unchanged. The setting in the small Midwestern US city of “[Undisclosed]” this time features riparian flooding as a difficulty (unremarkable climate change and infrastructural neglect) incidental and basically unrelated to the main threat of invasion by mind-controlling entities from another dimension.
This volume’s slightly lower overall count of dick jokes is more than compensated by a correspondingly higher number of ass jokes. It reads at a hectic pace. Readers who enjoyed the previous books should appreciate this one too, and while This Book Is Full of Spiders is certainly worth reading, it would be possible to read this third book directly after John Dies at the End with no greater sense of disorientation than the books deliberately offer in their published sequence.
In an afterword in his own voice, writer Jason Pargin sets aside his David Wong character to remark that he doesn’t view the three books as a completed trilogy, and to offer some earnest words about mental health, lest anyone take the wrong lesson from his stories of flawed reality-testing–as he seems to think that certain of his correspondents have done.
Although it’s eight years old, this is a book for our moment at the outset of 2021. I just saw the results of a CBS YouGov opinion poll asking “What is the biggest threat to the American way of life?” where a majority of respondents answered, “Other Americans” (in preference to such options as economic forces, natural disasters, foreign actors, etc.). I am not a fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre. This Book Is Full of Spiders might well be classed as a member of that genre, but it interrogates the fear of zombies, rather than taking it for granted. The mostly-explicit conclusion involves a prehistoric dog and Dunbar’s number, and the corollaries extend to dehumanizing social conflict in general.
As a sequel to John Dies at the End, this book stands on its own just fine. It inherits from the previous volume the central characters David, Amy, and John, the weirdness of the small Midwestern city of “[Undisclosed],” and the thaumaturgy of Soy Sauce. But the plot is well contained in this book. In fact it begins with an overture to readers not to read the earlier book: “It’s better if we get a fresh start. … I’m pleased to have the fresh opportunity to try to convince you I’m not a shithead.”
It is on the comic end of the horror spectrum, with plenty of gross-out moments and hapless antics, but it wasn’t until the final sections that I got to some laugh out loud passages. I recommend this book as a sound mix of lowbrow humor, weird horror, and social commentary.
The professedly unreliable narrator of John Dies at the End uses a lot of profanity. In the added apparatus for the 2020 reissue that I read, it is revealed that the “bad words” had been a source of consternation among the reading public. I don’t know–when limbs are getting ripped off, you accidentally get dosed with some unidentifiable tar-like street drug, and swarms of extradimensional bugs are making people explode, I think it’s fair for the interjections to go beyond “oh dear” and the modifiers well past “rather.”
There are a couple of direct invocations of Lovecraft, along with the sort of cosmic indifferentism (universally pervasive “apathy” as Wong would have it) that some critics attribute to Grandpa Cthulhu, but the pacing and resolutions of this story are more along Robert E. Howard lines: resilience in the face of bizarre menace, heroic dismemberment of foes, and the virtues of action over paralyzing reflection. But it’s not a pulp-retro tale at all. The setting is the 21st-century de-industrialized US Midwest with aimless 20-something protagonists thrown into a kind of post-punk Ghostbusters scenario.
Is it scary? Sort of, in the too-recognizable way that the narrator relates his epistemological uncertainty and self-loathing. Is it funny? I may not flatter myself to admit it, but I did laugh out loud at many points, whether because of the absurd events, the narrator’s deft turns of phrase, John’s dick jokes, or whatever it was. It’s buried pretty deep in the feces and wads of bloody meat, but there is even some genuine moral reflection that applies to all of us in our humanity-devouring circumstances of neoliberal overreach and ecocide.
So … recommended? I’m just not sure to whom. I own a copy of the sequel, and I might read it before the plague takes me down.