What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong is the third book in the John Dies at the End series.
David Wong—the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, executive editor of the popular comedy site Cracked.com—burst onto the literary scene with John Dies at the End (2007). A surprise indie blockbuster that was later reissued by a mainstream publisher, the title was also adapted for film by Don Coscarelli and is largely considered to be a cult classic. A sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, followed in 2012, as did an award-winning standalone novel, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (2015). Now, after much anticipation, the author returns with What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror—the third book in his informally named John Dies at the End series.
As the story opens, readers are reacquainted with David (“Dave,” aka the author)—best friend of the notorious John—who shares an apartment over a sex toy shop in an unnamed Midwest town with his girlfriend, Amy. Dave is frequently inundated with unsolicited packages from those who are familiar with the trio’s otherworldly exploits in eradicating evil and wish to rid themselves of their “weird bullshit”; in fact, he frequently sleepwalks only to find himself among these collectibles in his storage (“junk”) room the next morning. Despite a shared reputation for being hilariously inept in paranormal endeavors, Dave possesses a sharp self-awareness that results in the pop culture savvy that punctuates his storytelling:
Let me tell you what’s bullshit about every supernatural horror movie. Whenever the monster or angry ghost lady turns up, everybody is skeptical for at least the first third of the running time. It’s usually between forty and fifty minutes in that the protagonists begrudgingly admit that the ominous Latin chants emanating from the walls aren’t a plumbing issue. In real life, the very second Mom sees something red oozing from the ceiling, she thinks “blood” not “water from a rusty old pipe.” I wish people were as skeptical as they are in the movies.
When Dave is awoken by a phone call from John, he immediately recognizes that this could signify one of three things: a) a drunken misdial; b) an emergency; or c) an “emergency.” And while those drunken misdials account for approximately 70% of their telecommunications, this particular call falls into the much rarer non-quotation, and thereby true, emergency category.
Said emergency is the disappearance of a young girl, Maggie, at the hands of an enigmatic shapeshifter known only as “Mister Nymph.” Maggie’s father, Ted, is an irascible war veteran who understands that the circumstances of his daughter’s kidnapping are far beyond the scope of the local authorities; consequently, he enlists John and Co. in getting her back.
Their arrival upon the scene only serves to amplify a longstanding rift with local police (John is currently up on a public indecency charge), who deride their abilities but remain derelict in duty. For example, upon reintroduction, Dave is met with, “I remember you from your involvement in every single horrible thing that has happened in this town for the last several years.”
Not surprisingly, Maggie’s disappearance quickly proves to rank among the very worst of those horrible things. To say much more would risk ruining the unabashed lunacy of the plot, but what can be revealed is that more children go missing, Dave is (falsely?) implicated, and the very fate of the world may just be at stake. Also, there’s a BATMANTIS??? on the loose. And a reality TV doctor. And a shady group of agents from a mysterious organization called NON.
Needless to say, Dave and John must risk going back on the “Soy Sauce”—a drug that causes its users to drift between dimensions before dying particularly gruesome deaths (Dave and John are among its only known survivors)—to figure it all out.
Despite the more outlandish aspects of the story, there are serious undertones that resonate in real-world ways. Dave, who is unemployed and possesses no discernible vocational skills, is struggling with depression. Amy, the sole wage earner, is struggling with Dave’s inability to deal with his depression; this puts a subtle-yet-significant strain on their relationship. John is not immune to human weakness, either; he is dependent on both drugs and alcohol and remains perpetually immature. In an otherwise satirical saga, this is a poignant reminder that the monsters that dwell within are often more difficult to recognize and defeat than the ones that exist outside ourselves.
Much of this depth is achieved through the use of multiple viewpoints. While Dave narrates in the first person (as “Me”), his reflections are offset by his counterparts’ (which are presented in the third person); John is unsurprisingly grandiose but big-hearted, and Amy is both pragmatic and principled. This variance allows for a “big picture” landscape that negates the inevitable biases of its individual tellers. Excerpts from Dr. Albert Marconi’s fictitious book, Fear: Hell’s Parasite, are also interspersed throughout and provide some absolute gems that address the power of perspective (among other topical considerations):
“All of this is to say that our sight is very limited, precisely because it is skewed to serve a few specific functions, all of which are geared toward one singular goal: Survival … Whether you ‘see’ the universe as pure or corrupt, peaceful or violent, just or unjust, is largely determined by what you need to believe in order to motivate yourself to continue living for another day.”
Ultimately, What the Hell Did I Just Read transcends the gags, the gore, the gadgets (remember that sex shop?), and the gratuity—while still reveling wholeheartedly in it—to tell a story of survival that, despite its many absurdities, is one we’re all living.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.