Who first came up with the strange notion of combining horror and comedy? Try counting
the jokes in an H.P. Lovecraft story, and you won’t even get into the low single digits. Bram
Stoker doesn’t give
Count Dracula any witty one-liners, and Mary Shelley makes her
Frankenstein monster almost exactly like a real human, except for the noticeably absent
sense of humor. Nor do you find this mixture in Edgar Allan Poe. Poe wrote some comic
sketches and stories (not very well, I must add), but never tried to add humor to his scary


Yet when Roger Corman was making his Edgar Allan Poe

movies more than a century later, he discovered that
audiences responded favorably to humorous elements.
You can actually trace his learning curve over the course
of his eight Poe films—the early efforts stay close to horror
film formulas, but Corman gradually learned that comic
ingredients enhanced the audience appeal of his movies.
When he first embarked on these films, the director had
viewed Poe’s oeuvre as an platform for a more psychological
approach to horror. “I felt that Poe and Freud had been
working in different ways toward a concept of the unconscious
mind,” he later explained. But by the time he had arrived at
The Raven (1963), Corman had settled on a different approach,
filled with dark humor, and enlivened by the comic talents of
his actors, especially the combo of Peter Lorre and Jack
Nicholson, who were cast as unlikely father and son in a film
that became the most profitable of the Poe films to that date.
Later horror film directors learned from Corman’s example.

But I can’t give Corman credit for inventing the comedy and horror combination. The

real launching pad—at least within the confines of Hollywood—had come fifteen years
earlier with Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948). This film was Universal
Pictures' rule-breaking attempt to instill new life into its flagging monster movie franchise
with the addition of the hottest comedy duo of the era. The film proved so successful that
the studio cooked up low-quality sequels matching the comedians with the Mummy,
the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These films will never show up on a list
of cinematic masterpieces, but they helped define formulas that still can be found in
current-day cinematic offerings.

Yet the most relevant antecedent to my present subject, the novel
John Dies at the End,
is none of these, but rather the distinctive style of slacker horror comedy associated with
the Ghostbusters franchise. Here the comedy is often deadpan and rude, the heroes not
even valiant enough to qualify as anti-heroes. They are people who deal with supernatural
phenomena because they don’t have the skills to get a better job. They confront monsters,
but invariably the supernatural creatures are ridiculous ones, outlandish characters
who themselves would be seen as losers in this monster world. Instead of a mesmerizing
Count Dracula, we have a huge marshmallow man.

Jason Pargin, writing under the name David Wong, captures precisely this tone and

ambiance in John Dies at the End. His protagonists, two buddies John and Dave (yes,
the same Dave Wong who is ostensibly the author of the book) are deadbeats who can't
even fulfill their meager responsibilities as clerks in a second-rate video rental store.
Most of the clients really ought to go to the Blockbuster outlet down the street.  

But the monsters John and Dave battle are an even more pathetic bunch.  In the course of

this novel, readers will encounter a creature made of assorted pieces of meat, a demented
Ronald McDonald display figure come to life, a gorilla riding a giant crab, and an angry
figure on the inside of a television pounding on the screen in an attempt to break out of
the box. For variety, Pargin mixes in spiders, snakes, cockroaches, and always in large
quantities. Even Moses never mustered so many swarms and plagues. For a change up,

Wong dishes out shadow people, astral projections, and a variety of smart (and
occasionally cute) animals.

The plot advances with all of the subtlety of a

wacko video game. When Dave and John
overcome one creepy monster, they don’t get
much time to celebrate before another more
disgusting one arrives on the scene. I’ve never
read a novel with more bizarre scenes, but unlike
other books that involve surprising happenings,
this one skips over the boring parts in which the
author explains what just took place. If you are
inclined to ask hard questions—such as "Why did
those meat products form together into a human-
shape and go on the rampage?" or "Why was the
gorilla riding on top of a giant crab?"—this is not
the book for you. You won’t get answers, just more oddities in the pages ahead.

By any normal standards—for example, those taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—

this novel must be considered another loser, along with Dave and John and their stink-
up-the-place adversaries from an abandoned abattoir. Yet this book somehow works,
despite the glaring gaps and inconsistencies. Indeed, you might even call it the defining
work of slacker horror fiction—although that label raises the disturbing thought that
publishing imprints might give us more such stories in the future.

In any event, it’s a lowbrow, populist masterwork, not dissimilar to the aforementioned
Ghostbusters, or Mel Brooks’s zanier films, or the narratives of Terry Pratchett and

Douglas Adams. In such efforts, you don’t seek tightly-controlled plots and multiple
levels of symbolism.  You are given spectacles and laughs and a can-you-top-this series
of scenes and set pieces. Genre conventions are used and abused, delicate sensibilities
are tweaked, and audience outrage invited at every turn. For those who require trigger
warnings, a new one would be needed every sixty seconds, more or less.

Writing of this sort seems to invite disdain. You can almost hear
'Dave Wong' muttering
to himself behind the scenes: “Take your literary standards and use them to clean up
dog droppings.” In fact, he may even use those exact words at some point in this novel.
But it’s harder to write a successful book of this sort than you might think. Without the
benefit of coherence and character development, the author always operates on a
tightrope. Each page must deliver something funny or striking. The readers may be
suckers, but the author has to be a P.T. Barnum suckering them in at every step with
marvels and amusements. Many storytellers have attempted to write campy and
eccentric books of this sort, and have pratfallen prone on their proboscis.

But 'Dave Wong' (aka Jason Pargin) somehow manages to pull it off. He is, I’m forced

to admit, one of the more adept comic writers around, and displays a mastery of all the
building blocks of humorous fiction—understatement, overstatement, puns, one-liners,
misdirection, slapstick, parody, etc. I’m not sure where he learned these skills. When

he wrote John Dies at the End, he was working as copy editor at a law firm, where his
responsibilities included scrutinizing the text of insurance claims. This isn't exactly a

Harvard Lampoon apprenticeship.

I started reading this novel as a skeptic. I hesitated even before buying it. The cover and

the blurbs seemed targeted at fraternity wastoids. Even the praise of the book’s fans
made me apprehensive. ("It is like an H.P. Lovecraft tale if Lovecraft were into poop and
fart jokes.") With enthusiastic friends like these, who needs enemies? But Pargin delivers
the goods, page after page, and with enough consistency to keep the reader turning the

Yes, Poe would have been outraged. Lovecraft would have scorned it. Bram Stoker would

have shot it with a silver bullet, and maybe even hammered a stake into the middle of
the cover for good measure.  But don’t let reasonable people dissuade you from reading
this book. What do reasonable people know about slacker horror, anyway? This novel is
the slackest of them all, and likely to remain so until pigs sprout wings and hell freezes
over—both of which I expect in Wong's sequel.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: October 18, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Horror for Slackers

The Shameful Success of John Dies at the End
Essay by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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All rights reserved.
Poe would have been outraged.
Lovecraft would have scorned it.
Bram Stoker would have shot it
with a silver bullet, and maybe even
hammered a stake into the middle
of the cover for good measure.