The Atrocity Archives – If You Gaze Long Into IT, The IT Also Gazes Into You

51zhglnwgul._sx308_bo1204203200_Show of hands, how many of you out there have worked for a large corporation before? For those of you sitting at your desk with a hand raised, likely sipping a lukewarm coffee that may or may not have been the last cup before the carafe needed to be refilled (you think we don’t know?), put your hand down. You look ridiculous and your colleagues are beginning to talk. Those of you who had your hands raised, and are now feeling a little self-conscious, The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross, is going to make sense to you. It shouldn’t, because the contents are mind-warping, strange, and surreal, but it will. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, today’s review is The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, a book that is actually a long novella and a short story combined into one printing and kicks off the Laundry Files series. As of the writing of this review, there are 9 fully numbered entries in the series, so there’s clearly a readership. Considering it’s essentially about an IT guy who’s really good at math trying to contain gibbering extra-dimensional entities it seems like I may be the kind of person who’s a member of that readership. Review spoiler, as is tradition, I am.

The Atrocity Archives is written from the POV of Bob Howard, who starts the series as a low level IT guy working for Capital Laundry Services, the UK’s secret agency for all that goes bump in the night. The back blurb gives away that he quickly “gets noticed” and is bumped up to being a field agent. He subsequently goes on a few adventures, sees some scary stuff, and is generally annoyed by the proceedings. His first few (mis)adventures are told with an interesting but slightly repetitive window-dressing, in that about halfway through the action we fade to him in a staff meeting briefing his superiors on what happened next. I thought that it was funny the first time, but I think it wears a little thin on repeated use. Luckily this disappears for the most part as the story goes on, but it did stick out to me.

I don’t really hold it against the book overall, though, as one of the main selling points of the story is the way it examines and takes apart the day-to-day trappings of working for a soulless (maybe literally in this case) bureaucracy. Bob’s life as a secret government field agent who is licensed to use deadly and high-grade occult weaponry is mainly occupied by staff meetings, corporate liability training, and other equally terrifying drudgery. Bob’s inner monologue as he sits through yet another staff training exercise he’s overqualified for but had to attend because his office had the budget to send someone is dry, funny, and will spring to mind during my next conference call.

I was also very impressed by Stross’s handling of the actual horror scenes in the book. A great many crossover horror books tend to actually be a fantasy or sci-fi book with a little bit of lip service to horror in the form of a mention of Nyarlathotep or some gore and flickering lights. I can honestly say that there were multiple scenes in The Atrocity Archives where I was truly unsettled. I really can’t get across, without spoiling specifics, how effective Stross managed to be with his horror.

One thing that stuck out to me in a less-than-positive way was how juvenile the hacker culture aspects of the book were. I’ve waffled from one perspective to the other on this, and since I read this book rather than listened on the audiobook, I can only infer what Bob sounded like when he used terms like “pwnz0r3d” in casual conversation, and since I enjoyed all the other aspects of the book so much I’m choosing on a personal level to believe that Bob is so unremittingly sarcastic that he’s joking when he says it. In the interest of fairness and honesty I have to inform you that in choosing to believe this I’m ignoring some other questionable evidence (e.g. his roommates names being “Pinky” and “Brains”, though again this may just be another in-universe joke for them, it was hard for me to tell).

I liked the book. I liked the book so much I immediately bought the second and read seven chapters before reminding myself I have other books on my schedule and it can wait. That being said, I think that the writing itself is pretty much just okay, and my enjoyment of it was heavily influenced by the fact that it was written for someone with almost exactly my interests and history of media consumption. I don’t really think this is a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll love it” book, I don’t even think it’s really a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll finish it and still have faith in your recommendations, at least” book. If you have a good grounding in the Cthulhu mythos, but really wanted to experience it from the perspective of a late-twenties British IT guy who’s pretty funny most of the time I’d recommend you pick it up.

General Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 6.5/10
Will Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 9.5/10
-Will

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The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

The Brothers Cabal – Turns Out Horst is Back

51j2c226w2lI’d like to start this one out with an apology. I’m four books into this five book series and I have officially run out of ways to make the “Cabal [method of transportation]” joke. I’ve spent kind of an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with a way to make it work and I just can’t. I’m sure this is a personal failing on my part, and a better (funnier actually funny) writer could do it. I bet you’d still be actually laughing out loud at it. For that, I apologize. I’m the worst and I’m sorry. (Hey, side note, there’s gonna be mild spoilers. Please see the title for an example.)

Moving on to the actual meat and potatoes, we’re reviewing The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, the 4th book out of 5 in the Johannes Cabal series. You can find my reviews of the previous three books here, here, and here. I’m guessing if you’re reading a review of a book this far into a series you’re either already reading it yourself or are still somehow trying to convince yourself to buy the first one by seeing if the series is worth it overall. Well it is. The first two books are fun, the third book is where the series really hits its stride, and this book is a culmination of all of the best elements of the series. I cannot recommend reading the exploits of Johannes Cabal enough.

On the topic of Johannes Cabal, well at least relating to him, is the matter of the title. Readers of the first book will be very familiar with Horst Cabal, Johannes’ brother. Through a set of circumstances that were entirely the fault of Johannes, Horst became a vampire prior to the events of the first book. He was an absolute highlight of the first novel and was immediately elevated to one of my favorite characters in general.

SPOILER ALERT

He also died at the climax of the first book. Believing himself to have condemned Johannes to death and eternal damnation for the sins and general atrocities he’d committed throughout the book, he watched the sun rise and turned to ash, dying permanently.

Or so we thought! I was toying with the idea of just not talking about the title and playing this close to the chest, but the book has been out for four years at this point and I didn’t think being coy was worth it when the first chapter is literally Horst waking up from being resurrected. He obviously plays a huge part in the novel and is as good a POV character as he was a side character in the first book. He is the perfect foil to Johannes and the scenes where they verbally spar are beyond excellent. It’s too bad the series has to end, as I would devour a smaller episodic series featuring the brothers Cabal having misadventures until the end of my days.

SPOILERS DONE

I hope you read that regardless of spoilers because otherwise this next paragraph isn’t going to flow at all. The humor that has been prevalent throughout the series is at its peak in this book. Johannes continues to be drier than the Gobi, the supporting characters are shocked and amused by him in turns, and Howard continues to make almost Pratchett-like commentary on the ways of the world. I could gush for pages on how funny and amusing the book is, but I think this snippet sums up the moment to moment voice and almost insouciant humor in every page:

One of the women was watching the engagement through her own pair of binoculars. She looked up towards the castle, and their gaze met through several sets of lenses and prisms. The sergeant had a faint premonition that this meeting did not bode well. The woman lowered her glasses and looked directly at him. She had a very intense look about her, and she seemed to be mouthing something.

The sergeant was just noting that she was a very handsome woman, from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean he would guess, when his eyes unexpectedly burst into flames. This distressed him, and he staggered around, blood-red fire erupting from the sockets, while he explained the degree of agony he was enduring and how much he would appreciate assistance of an unspecified form from those present. Then his head caught fire and his conversation became very scream orientated.

I don’t really know how else to exhort you to read this series if you aren’t currently. The plot is tight and fun, and the ending of this book sets up the fifth and final book perfectly. The series has grown into itself and Johannes Cabal himself has had an incredibly enjoyable character arc from cold, uncaring, soulless necromancer to…well, cold, mostly uncaring, soul-possessing necromancer with a soft spot for ghouls.

I just really like the series. I really like this book. I’ve never read something that felt so much like it was written for me and my personal taste, but this series really just nails it. If you have a dry, morbid sense of humor and enjoy a good action tale that features a morally dubious but good-hearted-in-the-end character, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading the Johannes Cabal series and The Brothers Cabal.

Rating: The Brothers Cabal 10/10
-Will

Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

Johannes Cabal the Detective: There’s a Dirigible on the Cover, What More Do You Want?

7675981If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s horror stories. If there’s one more thing I like, it’s murder mysteries. If there’s one last thing I like, it’s dirigibles. You can imagine my excitement when I first discovered that the second book in the Johannes Cabal series was titled Johannes Cabal the Detective, the increase in my excitement when it was revealed that said detecting took place on a dirigible, and my final and greatest flux in excitement when the book turned into a Cabal-themed Murder on the Orient Express with the titular necromancer as the main character.

To the uninitiated, what are you doing reading a review of the second book in a series without having read the first book or review? That’s pretty silly and just asking for things to be spoiled. Things like the fact that Cabal survives the first book, is not damned to hell at the end, and wins back his soul. That should have been pretty obvious for any who realized that this was a series, but I digress. To said uninitiated (shame), Johannes cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy who sold his soul to the devil for necromantic knowledge. Unhappy with what that was doing to some of his test results (he is nothing if not rigidly scientific), he made a deal with the devil to get his soul back. This involved running a demonic carnival to steal peoples’ souls. As this second book continues with him as the main character, you can safely make the assumption (or read what I wrote 5 sentences ago) he survives and is successful. There, you’re caught up. You can read in my review of the first book here that I greatly enjoyed the humor, setting, and episodic nature of the first book but was let down by the lack of horror elements. How does Detective stack up?

While the storytelling style of the first book fit the plot rather well, with each episode telling the story of one of the more memorable stops on the demonic carnival’s itinerary, Johannes Cabal the Detective is much more a single story and plot arc, which once again worked well for the story it was trying to tell. Linear, well thought out, and interesting, even without the flavor from the characters this book would have made a fun and efficient (if not exceptional) murder mystery. The clues were all there, the murders themselves were confusing at first but elucidated as well as one expects in such stories as the tale played out, and the cast of characters was both well chosen and well written. I wish some of them had more to do than just die, but not everyone can see the detective’s grand reveal at the end.

On that topic, a stuffy germanic necromancer with a short temper and generally negative outlook on life solving the murders of people he neither cares for nor particularly likes is a story I didn’t know I needed until now. Cabal slots into a distinctly Sherlockian role with great aplomb, putting to use his cutting wit and scientific nature with snark and sarcasm that lands far more often than not. I won’t spoil their identity as it is a particularly fun reveal, but a character from the first book features as a main supporting character here, playing a particularly sardonic Watson to Cabal’s Holmes. The first book had its funny moments, but Detective definitely upped the game, and the hopes of a cutting remark or incredibly backhanded compliment had me turning pages more than any of the cliffhangers did. The fleshing out of this supporting character further was welcome and added to the comedic element, and I was glad for their inclusion throughout the duration of the novel.

Speaking of cliffhangers, there was a great deal more action in this novel than in the first of the Cabal series. Dangling from high places, flying crazy aerial vehicles, outrunning explosions, winning fencing duels, raising dictators as voracious zombies and inciting mass revolts? Oh yeah, that’s all there and more. When you consider that Cabal is, as a character, about as stiff and anti-fun as can be, he manages to get up to some of the most ridiculous hijinks you can imagine, and the juxtaposition of his character in these various disasters is both compelling and hilarious in equal measure.

For those of you hoping for a spookier outing in this sophomore novel, unfortunately you will be disappointed. While there is still an air of the occult about everything (main character being a necromancer and all), there are even fewer actual horror elements in this novel than in the first. Having adjusted my expectations somewhat after book one, this didn’t bother me as much, but it does still need to be stated. Howard definitely chose to go for more of a murder mystery/political intrigue tale here, and while it works (very, very well), my deep and eternal thirst for scares is far from sated by this outing.

If action, intrigue, gunfights, daring swordsmen and reckless pilots, dirigibles, and political unrest sound like fun to you, Johannes Cabal the Detective is a must read. It continues the story of the titular character in fine form, fleshing out who Johannes is as a person while taking the reader on an absolutely wild ride through the skies of a small and overambitious shithole of a country (Cabal’s words, not mine). I highly recommend this book (and its predecessor, don’t be lazy) to all readers, as I think it has something for everyone to enjoy.

Rating: Johannes Cabal the Detective – 8.5/10
-Will

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – I Spent Longer Reading The Title Than I Did Reading The Book. No, Seriously, This Was An Unnecessarily Long Book Title

51hnqg0ylal-_sx331_bo1204203200_To you catchers of creeps, you hunters of haunts, you finders of frights, I bid you welcome to the Spooky Corner on the spookiest day of the year! Happy Halloween from those of us at The Quill to Live, and we hope you’re having a delightfully dreadful time. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to what you came for.

We’re back with the second installment in the John Dies at the End series: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (henceforth referred to as Spiders, since that title is half a dictionary long). For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my review of the first book in the series from a week or two ago (shame on you), you can find it here. As a brief summary, I absolutely loved its take on horror and the human understanding of the universe, but thought that the childish humor and despicable characters may, understandably, impede enjoyment for some.

Shockingly, Spiders continues with much of the same. David and John are still despicable and relatively worthless human beings other than the whole “saving the world” thing they did in book one. A year has passed, and the town of Undisclosed hasn’t changed much over that time. It’s still a shithole, weird stuff still happens, and the “junkie scooby gang” is still deeply involved in the aforementioned weird stuff. The book opens with David and John getting drunk on a water tower as a military style convoy passes under them and violently crashes. They take a macguffin from the crashed vehicle, bury it in their backyard, and go back to daily life (as you do). Well, they try to, but David is attacked by a terrifying spider-monster that he barely fends off before it escapes and takes over the body of a police officer who was trying to arrest him at the time. This mishap leads to a few others and suddenly the town is overrun by spider-zombies, go figure. The remainder of the book mostly follows the split-up John, David, and Amy as they try to find each other in the quarantined town and, as a secondary goal, try to save the world (again).

If the plot sounds rather neat and tidy in that fantastic synopsis, that’s because it is. I thought there were some forgivable but frustrating issues with pacing and narrative flow in JDatE, Spiders felt much more cohesive throughout and really felt like one self-contained story. The order of the chapters and fondness of the author for pausing the action to go back to another character’s perspective from a few hours before could have led to some serious issues, but I actually think that it was well done and added to both the suspense and humor of the book positively.

On the topic of “things that could have really ruined this book but turned out ok in the end”, I thought that the zombie apocalypse in the town of Undisclosed was handled very well and avoided a lot of the traps that zombie books tend to fall into. As something of a zombie fiction fanboy (Link to my recommendations here for those who are interested), there are a lot of ways to do zombies wrong and, while that wouldn’t have bothered me much as I just really love zombies, Spiders avoids a lot of the major ones. The zombies are scary, gross, unique, and fit within this universe’s flavor of horror and monsters extremely well. I’m rarely spooked by zombie books at this point, but there were a couple of moments that really got to me. When you get to the garage you’ll know what I mean.

A possible major sticking point for readers of the first book, and one that anyone reading the review of its sequel likely didn’t have an issue with (or found a way to move past it), was the fact that the main characters are…sort of the worst. John is a flaky, crazy, meth-smoking junkie, David is an overweight and horrifically depressed manager of a movie store, and Amy is basically their conscience and one ray of hope for the two of them to not be so fucking terrible all the time. The dynamic trio is split up for the majority of the book for reasons I refuse to get into as I don’t want to spoil them, and seeing them interact with the variety of new side characters was a treat. While I love their dynamic together, seeing other people react to just how bad they are at being heroes was great and led to some alternatively hilarious and horrifying moments.

I’d like to take a moment, quickly, to appreciate one of the side characters featured in this book: Detective Lance Falconer. I am being intentionally vague here, as to go into any more detail than I do in this paragraph could spoil what is possibly my favorite aspect of this book. I thought the way his character was handled was fantastic and really elevated a lot of elements in the book. From his first introduction to his final scene with David, he was a constant positive addition. He really stood above the rest of the characters introduced in Spiders, and I hope he makes a return in the future, preferably jumping over a truck of some kind in his bitchin’ Porsche.

On the topic of bitchin’ cars and jumping over things, Spiders maintains the adolescent level of humor that was found throughout the first novel. Toilet humor, excessive swearing, sex jokes, and what would be sight gags if this was a movie are plentiful and unapologetic. If you made it through book one just tolerating the humor, you won’t see much of an improvement here. A lot of it was still pretty hit or miss for me, but like in the first one when the humor did hit, it had me in stitches. There were a few moments where I drew looks on the subway because I was crying from laughing so hard.

In contrast to the humor, the horror was on point for the entire book. Not only did we get a much better understanding than in book one of why people do or don’t see the various creatures, but the creatures that were added and how the main characters interact with them in various situations were absolutely fantastic. There’s a scene with a teddy bear that I am still shuddering about weeks after finishing. The mix of body horror and oppressive atmosphere, the tension reminiscent of watching someone walk down into a dark basement in the theater, and the creeping sense of wrongness that pervades Undisclosed were all handled excellently. I am even more impressed with how scary this book is when you consider how much of it is dedicated to being funny at the same time. I will be having nightmares featuring certain scenes of this book for years to come. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but it really is.

John Dies at the End had been on my to-do list for years before I finally got to it. I read This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It in one sitting the day after I finished the first book. It ups the quality of the first book in every way and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys cosmic horror, zombies, or creepy parasites. The humor is sometimes a little off-color and tone deaf but that is easily forgiven when considering the quality of the horror and how much fun the ride is the entire time. The Spooky Corner of The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

Rating: This Book is Full of Spider: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – 9.5/10

-Will

John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will