The Fanboy Planet Magic Mailbox delivers many intriguing things, one of which last month was an advanced copy of a novel called John Dies at the End. The title rang a bell, and I remembered high school students trying to convince me to read this website a few years ago — which I, being older and wiser than they, politely declined. What a maroon.
Reading the novel which sprung from the blog of “David Wong”, I realize I could have been in early on a horror comedy that’s exactly up my alley. If Stephen King and Douglas Adams had had a baby — well, that might turn out to be a plot point in a later sequel, so I’ll back away from that thought. Instead, know that this novel is funny, scary, occasionally mind-blowing in its twists and turns, and yet not afraid to occasionally stop for the titular John to find clever ways to brag about his Sir Henry Wagstaff. It’s no wonder that filmmaker Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho Tep) jumped on the movie rights.
Though he originally blogged under the name of David Wong — the unwilling supernatural detective who faces down meat demons and apocalypses when he’d rather be playing xBox — writer Jason Pargin managed to parlay his internet infamy into becoming editor of Cracked.com, so again, I call myself maroon. I’ve been reading and enjoying his work for years.
The following is our conversation conducted via e-mail this week —
Jason Pargin: I was just asking myself that very question. As long as we’re at a safe distance I suppose it doesn’t matter. Since in JDatE the projections tended to attack David, I’m sure you understand that if we ever meet face to face, I’ll be shouting the answers to your questions over the sound of the running chainsaw I’m wielding menacingly. It’s nothing personal.
Derek McCaw: This all started years ago with you just blogging – at what point did you realize you were turning this into something bigger, and what triggered that realization?
Jason Pargin: I first posted it online as a short, scary “campfire” story on Halloween, in 2001. That was the tale that became the opening scene of the novel you read. I got a ton of fan mail and it was popular demand that made me do a part two the following year (also on Halloween) and I decided to make it a holiday tradition after that.
Over the next few years I went all-out in developing the whole universe and back-story of this town and the ecosystem of creatures and spirits wandering around it. I knew I had to see it through to some kind of conclusion, or else you wind up just stretching out the story needlessly, like the last few seasons of The X-Files.
It would take five years before I would write “The End.”
Derek McCaw: What kept you going?
Jason Pargin: The readers, and only the readers.
This is the magic if the internet: you get immediate feedback. You post something online and within minutes your comments section and inbox light up with reader reactions. So many struggling novelists will toil through a manuscript for years, doubting themselves, making changes, falling out of love with the stuff they wrote a year before and eventually quit because they never get that kind of reinforcement.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of kids telling me to stop writing, or posting ASCII penises as their only comment. But you learn to separate useful feedback from the rest in a hurry.
Derek McCaw: Did the appreciation of a filmmaker like Don Coscarelli influence your storytelling?
Jason Pargin: My Mom took me to go see Phantasm at a midnight Halloween showing back in 1985 or so, when I would have been just 10 years old. Either she didn’t know how scary the movie was, or she thought it would make me a man (which may be why every time the spheres sucked the blood out of someone’s brain, she would turn to me and scream, “PAY ATTENTION – ONE DAY YOU WILL GET A JOB AND THAT IS WHAT IT WILL FEEL LIKE”).
The insane, totally off-the-rails rhythm of that movie stuck with me. I never saw another horror film duplicate it. But you can see me trying to imitate that “anything can happen at any time” feeling in JDatE.
Derek McCaw: Why publish under the pseudonym, when you’ve made somewhat of a name for yourself now as the editor of Cracked.com?
Jason Pargin: I was writing on the internet as “David Wong” and had a small following a good two years before writing John Dies at the End. So when it came time to write my scary Halloween story that first year, it was going to be written as David Wong, no question.
But I also knew I wanted to tell it as a “campfire” story and of course what makes a campfire story unique is you tell it as if it’s true or, even better, as something that happened to the storyteller (“You know, being out here in the woods reminds me of something that happened to a friend of mine a few years back, while we were driving down a deserted road…”)
Fast forward a few years, with the internet stuff and the book stuff both having grown, there’s no reason to introduce confusion by putting a second name out there. Besides, if I sign somebody’s book with “Jason Pargin” I think that actually lowers the resale value to below the cost of a new copy.
Derek McCaw: What’s your personal mandate for Cracked? Do you feel the weight of carrying on an illustrious tradition of informed stupidity?
Jason Pargin: I think every good writer or creative person starts from a place of wanting to fulfill some need in the culture that’s not getting filled. I don’t mean as some grand business plan, the good writers don’t think that way. I just mean you are continually frustrated that the kind of stuff you want to read isn’t being written. So you do it yourself.
So with Cracked, much of what we are doing is a reaction to a culture of internet comedy that always seemed extremely cruel and bitter and lowbrow. Lots of videos of guys falling off skateboards and bloggers doing rant-style, angry comedy bashing women and gays and everything else.
We wanted to go the other direction. Cracked is analytical, not angry. Some would say it’s a “geek” style, all about obscure knowledge and deconstructing pop culture, with boner jokes thrown in. But we’re finding that what we used to call “geek” is now the mainstream of the culture (hell, we even have a geek president). The huge response the site has gotten really demonstrates that.
Derek McCaw: If you have any input on casting, now that Brad Pitt’s really too old, who should play you in the movie?
Jason Pargin: Too old? Have you seen Benjamin Button? I think the technology is there. We can digitally add some definition to his pecs, too, to make him look more like I imagine David. If we can’t get Brad, there’s no reason we can’t us the same technology to superimpose Brad’s body on whoever they cast.
Derek McCaw: Looking back over the work, are there revisions you wish you’d made if you’d known you were creating a full-fledged novel and not just episodes in the life of David Wong?
Jason Pargin: There were, and I did make them. That’s the other awesome thing about the internet; if you see something you want to change, hey, just go change it! Click “publish” and your changes are now live. If somebody calls you on it, just say their memory is faulty.
Then when the book went into its first print run, I actually spent a solid six months revising it for that medium, fleshing it out and expanding in places I didn’t think the internet would have patience for. Trust me, the story you have is much, much more well-rounded and cohesive than the episodic adventure that ran on the web. And the book doesn’t have flashing banner ads.
Derek McCaw: How huge a franchise do you plan on this being?
Jason Pargin: Well, the original plan was, “have 50 or 60 strangers on the internet read the story and forget about their troubles for an hour” and to be honest, I’ve never had a chance to revise the plan beyond that. I am writing a sequel and hopefully the people at St. Martins will want to publish it.
As for the movie… I just saw a fantastic, low-budget horror comedy called Zombieland open with $25 million this weekend. I know nothing about the business, but I can’t help but think that the people who had a great time watching Zombieland would love a JDatE movie. And we already know a cgi Brad Pitt can sell tickets, so…
so hopefully we’ll have more to report on THAT one, as well as an interview with the man determined to make it happen, Don Coscarelli…