You almost certainly haven’t heard of Jason Pargin, and you probably don’t recognize his pseudonym, David Wong. But I suspect you’ve read something he’s worked on: Wong is the senior editor of Webby-award winning comedy website Cracked.com. In 1999, he started a website called Pointless Waste of Time, and this built-in fan base helped boost Cracked when the two sites eventually merged.
In addition to his position as editor, Wong heads the Cracked forums, is a frequent columnist, and at one point last month had written two of Amazon’s top five best-selling horror novels. The first one, 2007’s John Dies at the End, has been adapted into a movie featuring Paul Giamatti and, as I write this, is the #1 trailer on iTunes . The second one, This Book is Full of Spiders (Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It), recently hit #11 on the New York Times’ Best-Seller List.
Wong’s rise in popularity goes hand in hand with that of Cracked.com, which is currently the most visited comedy website on the internet. Cracked offers not just laughs, but knowledge, in an informative, list-based format, on subjects as diverse as biology, history, and pop culture.
Behind most Cracked articles is a hefty amount of research, and David Wong’s writing is no exception; with him, the comedy is often secondary to the commentary. Articles such as “6 Brainwashing Techniques They’re Using On You Right Now,” and “5 Reasons Humanity Desperately Wants Monsters to Be Real” show him to be a well-read amateur anthropologist, fascinated by the limits and malleability of the human brain. One of his most impressive articles, “What is the Monkeysphere?” applies evolutionary psychology to human society and determines that our brains simply aren’t big enough to function smoothly. (It also has funny pictures of monkeys to remind you what website you’re on.) He uses these ideas to make Spiders one of the more philosophically daring books I’ve read, and certainly the most ambitious book to feature the word “Dude” in the title.
In fact, Spiders is one of the most powerful blends of reflection on the human condition and penis jokes since Shakespeare. It’s far from perfect — it’s neither as funny nor as creative as its predecessor, John Dies at the End. More than a little messy, some of the various plotlines and themes are resolved less satisfyingly than others, but I still freaking loved it.
The plot follows a couple of twenty-something slackers: Dave (a fictionalized version of Wong) and his best friend John, whose small Midwestern town becomes the epicenter of a zombie outbreak. Well, not zombies, exactly: the real culprit is a literally otherworldly spider-like creature that enters its victims’ mouths and takes over their brains. The infected act normally for an indefinite period of time before suddenly going berserk in a super-powered murder spree.
Readers of Wong’s columns will recognize the mistrust of media and government that pervades the book: the government cuts off all communication between the town and the outside world, the internet declares this the start of the zombie apocalypse, and TV news stations replay the same few clips for weeks on end.
The true horror of the novel ultimately isn’t the zombies themselves, although the eponymous spiders can be quite terrifying. What Wong wants to frighten us with is how quickly civilization starts to collapse. Dave’s girlfriend, Amy, is out of town when the outbreak hits, and she watches in shock as paranoia sweeps across the nation, people stock up on guns and canned goods, red-blooded college males eagerly form anti-zombie militias, and good human beings recommend bombing her boyfriend’s whole town to eliminate the infection, innocent bystanders be damned.
Inside the town might be even worse. The military has pulled out, so the streets are patrolled by heavily armed rednecks with no way of determining who is clean. The potentially infected set up their own self-contained society within the hospital, and factions emerge more quickly than you can say “William Golding.” Wong’s thesis seems to be that an “Us against Them” mentality can form easily. The corollary is that human communities are remarkably fragile.
Spiders is far from the first work of fiction to address these issues in the context of an epidemic (last year’s film Contagion is a recent example), but Wong takes things further in a way one has to read to understand. To Wong, modern society is one big Tower of Babel waiting for an excuse to fall apart. Solving the parasite situation won’t do anything to fix the root of the problem.
Still, before anyone can get to work at propping up Babel, Dave and John must solve the parasite situation. The burden falls on them because — due to a supernatural drug called “Soy Sauce” which they took in the first book — they are two of the few humans who can actually see the extra-dimensional spiders, who are even capable of knowing what kind of forces they are up against, but they aren’t instinctual heroes.
It is a human tendency to self-identify with the protagonist of a work of fiction. In most cases it makes us feel special, capable, even heroic. In fact, a lifetime of consuming entertainment has made me feel so important that I think you’ll care about what I think about this weird book I like.
Spiders, to its credit, doesn’t let me be Aragorn or Spider-Man or Harry Potter. It just lets me be Dave, a mostly good-hearted but woefully incompetent dude who actually makes things worse throughout most of the book. While Spider-Man’s Aunt May might “believe there’s a hero in all of us,” Wong seems less certain. Dave does perform the occasional act of gallantry throughout the book, but often it is almost by accident, and he’s also guilty of some serious mistakes.
The only character who might be called naturally heroic is the Porsche-driving detective Lance Falconer, who “looked like he had been clipped out of a catalog.” Throughout the novel, Falconer is nothing less than the consummate badass. He is also a parody. Wong is lampooning the very concept of the gritty, no-nonsense action hero. As totally goddamn cool as he is, the detective is absurd and more than a little out of place. Wong’s world has no room for overconfident lone wolves. He isn’t writing for heroes, so he refuses to write about them.
The only thing Wong’s bumbling protagonists have going for them is a Generation Y adaptability. Dave, John, and Amy are technologically savvy, which is only mildly important to the plot, but helps define them as the situation gets harrier. They are able to take anything in stride, and this extends to the paranormal. While a 40-year-old struggles to comprehend how Soy Sauce can distort the space-time continuum, John confidently explains that it is like nanotechnology, but “if, instead of tiny robots, it’s magic.”
Scientific progress advances exponentially, and we, like Dave and John, are young enough to accept this. It’s why a 3-year-old might be better at operating an iPhone than her grandfather — there is a part of her grandfather’s brain that believes smart phones shouldn’t be possible, and the 3-year-old quite simply does not have that. Wong, who literally owes his entire career to the magic of the internet, understands this better than most. He speaks to a generation that subconsciously believes that anything is possible, a generation ready and willing to adapt. At the very least, he knows enough about how our brains work to recognize that if he pretends to speak to us, we’ll keep buying his books.
This article was originally published in the Princeton University paper the Nassau Weekly.