At their heart, David Wong’s books set in the town of Undisclosed are about perception. His first novel, John Dies at the End, its sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders, and the latest, What the Hell Did I Just Read, all deal with the fact that what we’re seeing with our eyes might not actually be what’s going on. The first two novels address it somewhat circuitously, but What the Hell Did I Just Read explicitly tackles the subject, wondering if our protagonist (also named David Wong) and his buddy John are actually supernatural investigators and problem-solvers, or just, respectively, cripplingly depressed and drug-addled ne’er-do-wells.
That’s a heady intro paragraph, isn’t it? The books written by Wong — the pseudonym for Cracked’s executive editor, Jason Pargin — are a strange mix of absurdist humor, Lovecraftian horrors, dick jokes, and insightful glimpses into the mind of how things can get when you’re locked into small town life.
Sure, yes — maybe David and John, along with David’s girlfriend, Amy, have saved the town and the world at large a couple of times. However, after saving the world kind of by accident, even twice, the unrelenting horrors of small town life would begin to cripple even the mentally strongest among us. Add in a deluge of otherworldly creatures and actors seemingly hellbent on destroying the universe as we know it, and maybe you’d start keeping crystal meth in a jar shaped like an owl above your toilet.
I’d like it to be known that the preceding sentence is a plot point from What the Hell Did I Just Read and not an example drawn from my own life, even if some of the rest of the paragraph might’ve been.
In terms of trilogies, the one collectively known as “The John Dies at the End books” has an interesting history. The first book is about David and John meeting up with a strange individual, being exposed to the material known as soy sauce, having their abilities to view the world, time, and the universe itself altered, and destroying an entire dimension in order to stop a Lovecraftian being known as Korrok from destroying our own.
John Dies at the End started life as an online story in 2001, then saw a release from Permuted Books in 2007, and a hardcover release with more material from Thomas Dunne in 2009. Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) directed the film version which was released in January of 2012, and the sequel novel, This Book is Full of Spiders, came out in October of the same year. This Book is Full of Spiders features much less dimensional hopping, dealing with a viral outbreak which creates zombie-like creatures in the quarantined town of Undisclosed.
Some people think these books are real. The first book, especially, seems like it was taken directly from the online rantings of a man who saw some shit he really wish he hadn’t. Calling John Dies at the End novel-length creepypasta might be going too far, but there are definitely elements of the story which are reflected in the likes of SCP Foundation and the stories posted late at night on various subreddits.
This Book is Full of Spiders moved a bit away from just David’s perspective, featuring chapters which were told from the perspective of John and Amy, and maybe it suffered a little for it, because I don’t think I’ve gone back to revisit it since buying it and reading it on a return trip from New York not long after it was published. John Dies at the End has gotten several re-reads from me, and it always seems like I manage to find something new which grabs my attention every time, but I don’t really recall having read This Book is Full of Spiders but once.
However, after finishing What the Hell Did I Just Read, I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a once-over, and managed to find myself just as absorbed as the first time I read it, so perhaps it’s due a fully-committed re-read, thanks to the fact that What the Hell Did I Just Read does a really effective job of maintaining the three perspectives of David, John, and Amy so well that it manages to be more involving than distracting.
As a matter of fact, part of the appeal of What the Hell Did I Just Read is that the different characters get different tonalities, rather than the way This Book is Full of Spiders simply had David retelling parts of the story which he’d been given by the other two characters. The switch between tone in Wong’s latest allows humor, insight, and morality to balance each out and demonstrate that perspective thing again.
What John sees might not be what David experiences, and what David experiences might not reflect how Amy feels. Whereas David’s been the somewhat-unreliable narrator of the previous two books, Amy and John’s versions of events change tone and we can see how each of the characters view the others, as well as themselves. It’s that dynamic which really informs What the Hell Did I Just Read, because the whole of the book really hinges on the concept of what one knows about one’s self.
In order to discuss this, minor spoiler: the whole book hinges on these creatures John calls “fuckroaches” which can change appearance. In addition to seeming to be something externally, they can alter your memories. This means the fuckroaches can not only look like something that they aren’t, but they can make you think that whatever they look like has always existed. It’s sinister and weird, and makes the whole unreliable narrator aspect of the book really, really apt.
So, throughout the whole of David, Amy, and John dealing with the potentially devastating nature of this, there’s also how it affects their interpersonal relations. Are David and John really these badass guys who manage to rescue lost kids or save the world from unknowable horrors, or are they a couple of fuck-ups who stumble into glory?
Or, worse: is David a fraud who’s trying to make everyone think this, and in reality a madman doing terrible things? It’s a testament to Wong’s skill as a writer that, despite having read two whole books where David and John do amazing things while flinging hilarious jokes left and right, you begin to wonder just what has actually happened.
All of that really makes it seem like these books are chock-full of heady, heavy-duty existential angst. They kind of are, but they’re also absolutely fucking hilarious. Eye-watering, bent-double, knee-slapping, scare the cats off the couch funny. The first twenty pages of What the Hell Did I Just Read had me laughing harder and longer than anything I’ve read in a long, long while. A personal favorite:
“His senior year, he started a garage band that was quickly banned from every club, bar, park, and concert hall in the region due to his insistence on playing a song called, ‘This Venue Is a Front for Human Trafficking, Someone Call the FBI, this Is Not Just a Joke Song Title.’”
That’s just a sentence. I could’ve literally transcribed all of pages nine and ten, because they are absolutely perfect.
That’s how perception carries over even into the book’s storytelling. Wong doesn’t just pick a tone and stick with it for the entirety of the book. All gags or action or ennui or whatever wouldn’t make this out there story work. You need to have characters who make jokes in times of crisis, and collapse in times of calm in order for the people to seem real, even if there are brain-erasing rays and a creature called Millibutt. There are jokes about dildos and silicone butts, but also existential angst regarding one’s place in the universe and whether or not your partner loves you as much as she used to.
Again: I’d like it to be known that the preceding sentence is a plot point from What the Hell Did I Just Read and not an example drawn from my own life.
In the afterward, Wong says that he has no idea if there will be another book in the series, but assumes there will be. Even if this is where it ends, it’s a remarkably satisfying, mature conclusion to a trilogy of novels which has quite a lot of dick jokes, but still finds quite a lot to say about the human condition.
What the Hell Did I Just Read is out tomorrow from St. Martin’s Press. You can buy the book and read a preview at the book’s website.