BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: John Dies at the End

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, um, spoilers?

John Dies at the End is a very strange book. I mean, really strange. Part horror story, part buddy comedy, it’s got a rolling stream-of-consciousness narrative featuring one of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, coupled with what at times feels like slightly “making it up as we go along” plotting. But it’s hard to tell, given the rambling, shaggy-dog-story nature of the storytelling.

So, David Wong (pseudonymous author and narrator) and his buddy John live in “Undisclosed”, a town whose name we will never be given, but somewhere mid-western (probably) and sort of deal with supernatural problems that people pass on to them. This is because of an incident some time back where they ingested a drug called “Soy Sauce”, which opened their minds to such things, got a bunch of people gruesomely killed and possibly allowed agents of darkness loose in the world. It’s hard to tell, in some ways, as the meandering and contradictory nature of David’s narration makes it hard to tell.

The thing is this: it works. My big issue with the more blood-spattered horror books I’ve read this year – such as The Damnation Game – is that their desire to use body-horror for shock just makes me want to stop reading because it’s silly, and here the somewhat messy nature of the horror is faintly silly but done around characters I’m engaged with and care about so the threat feels more immediate and had more effect on me. Similarly, the plot is kind of ridiculously over the top, a genre-savvy mix of almost every trope I’ve read so far, that remains rooted in its effects on the main characters at its centre.

It’s not a totally flawless parade through – sometimes the contradictions in the story are evidently deliberate and clever use of the narrative style, others they could easily be actual plot holes and mistakes. Some of its characters get under-served, especially David’s two love interests (although they come off better than a lot of women in horror fiction!) but do give rise to a lyrically sad moment mid-way through as David laments the loss of one of them in an actually quite moving passage that feels like it’s from a different, more thoughtful, book.

And you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out if the title is indeed a huge spoiler.

In a way, John Dies at the End feels like a good choice to end this years reading list with. It’s so genre-literate, so immersed in those waters, and pulling together so much of Horror fiction, both literary and cinematic, into it’s weaving narrative, that it’s a rousing, blood-and-guts finale to the year. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with some overall thoughts, but for now, sleep well, don’t let the nightmares get you. Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome!

Rating: 4 / 5
Reviewer: Matt Farr


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  1. phlambler /

    Really glad you liked it. The reason it feels disjointed to a degree is it started life as a weekly (or something like that) online story which then developed into the wonderful novel which is JDATE.

  2. I loved this book so much.

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