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A Review of "This Book Is Full of Spiders"

The blurb for people who don't like to read reviews:

This Book Is Full of Spiders, the sequel to John Dies at the End, is a 2012 horror-comedy by David Wong.  Like JDatE, it describes the misadventures of a couple of slackers as they do battle with supernatural, evil forces.  Specifically, they are up against an army of zombie-like creatures who threaten to spread a terrible infection across the world.

Overall it's a pretty fun read.  The action remains tense and exposition comes out just fast enough to keep you invested, but slow enough that you remain in the dark.  It's a mostly-excellent book that I would definitely recommend.

My Rating:  4 / 5

The bit where I introduce things

If you're a regular reader of Cracked, then you know David Wong.  There's a halfway-decent chance that you've read one of his books, and if not, it's certain that you've at least read one of his advertisements.

Wong's first book, JDatE, was originally self-published via his network of personal websites back in the early 2000s.  I remember reading parts of it while it was still something of a work in progress, in between long sessions of lurking on the Pointless Waste of Time forums.  I thought he had this terrific, insane voice that filled me with equal parts admiration and jealousy.

Fast forward ten years or so and JDatE has become a bestselling book and a feature film.  Those equal parts of admiration and jealousy are still equal - just bigger.  I would be lying if I said that I didn't consider John Dies at the End to be one of my favorite and most influential novels.  I would also be lying if I didn't feel a sense of failure knowing that I haven't yet put my own work out there for the world to see.  But in that respect, JDatE is an incredibly dear and important work to me, as it has encouraged me to stick with my writing.

So, with that kind of background, the odds are poor for any kind of follow-up.  Really, how do you manage to top something that you consider to be deeply tied to your inner senses of motivation, worth, and aspiration?

Consequently, I don't think TBIFS is nearly as good a book.  That's perhaps an unfair assessment, given the circumstances, but I have to be honest.  In some ways, TBIFS is far better written than its predecessor, and in other ways it is far worse.  I'm not sure if this can be attributed to the fact that I haven't read JDatE in awhile and I'm simply thinking of it with affection, or if it's that Wong got lazy in between.  Knowing Wong's style, I suspect it's the former.

The bit where I complain about things

TBIFS just isn't as funny at JDatE.  That's not to say there aren't any laughs - there certainly are, and when the beats hit, they hit hard.  But I remember reading Wong's first book and having a good laugh at least once every couple of pages.  TBIFS, on the other hand, only has a few really strong jokes.  In between there are a couple of mildly amusing observations or bits of dialogue that are best described as "light."

Similarly, there aren't nearly as many moments that are truly terrifying.  The horror in JDatE was personal and cerebral, whereas the horror in TBIFS is spectacular and visceral.  JDatE would unnerve you with a scene where a creepy dude says ominous things to a van full of characters.  You could only guess at what was about to happen next.  TBIFS will skip the creepy dude, skip the dialogue, skip the van, and just have a monster rip the characters apart in great, gory detail.

I think this, more than anything else, may be a point of contention for people who liked JDatE.  TBIFS is more like a "zombie-themed action thriller" while JDatE was more of a "Lovecraftian horror-comedy."  There's similarities, sure, but the tone is different.

I don't really mind the new approach - it still makes for a fun book.  It's just unexpected.  One drawback is that Wong's style lends itself to slow-burn comedy, so some of the scenes that should come across as action-packed fall a bit flat.

(On the other hand, I'm picturing how these same scenes would come across if written by some hacky thriller writer....  "Then John shot his shotgun!  BANG BANG!  And he killed a monster!  And then Amy said, "Oh, no!  Shoot that one next, John!"  So then John killed a different monster!")

Another problem is that Wong sneaks in material from some of his past writings on human behavior.  It's not that these articles are bad, necessarily, but I feel like Wong (and Cracked in general) has a tendency to oversimplify scientific or sociological research and come up with sweeping generalizations.  The end result is that he / they will make broad statements as a hyperbolic "fact," when really the topic should be more of a "thought-provoking consideration."

Let me give you a long example.  A long time ago, back when Wong was still maintaining PWoT, he wrote an article called "What is the Monkeysphere?"  The article was an exploration of the idea that human beings are incapable of forming relationships beyond a certain number of people - basically that you can only form about 150 or so friendships before your brain physically stops you from forming more.

The basic concept (Dunbar's number) is an intriguing idea that may explain why some people have a hard time identifying with people from other cultures or groups.  It also explains why people can, to some extent, dissociate themselves from large-scale catastrophes or massacres.  All that being said, it's important to remember that Dunbar's number is only a hypothesis.  It is supported to some extent by neurological and anatomical research, but there have been no extensive experimental studies - all the research done so far is basically just correlative.  It is certainly not a scientific theory.

In truth, human interaction is far too complex to be summarized by Dunbar's number.  People are flexible and friendships are intangible; our perceptions and attitudes change over time and from situation to situation, which enables us to understand and comprehend far more complicated relationships than Dunbar's number allows.  You can find tenuous links between yourself and any number of vaguely-defined people that create social connections - just think about how you immediately make a friend whenever you're traveling and you meet somebody who was born in your home state.  Dunbar's number doesn't allow for the sort of ambiguities of these kinds of relationships.

And how exactly do you consider whether somebody is a "friend" or not?  I have close relationships to all of my coworkers, but - no offense to my office - I don't consider any of them to be "friends."  They're coworkers.  Dunbar's number does not have room for the complexity of a neutral social network - think about how many clients or customers you might have professionally whose names and backgrounds you know, but whom you would never consider to be dear friends.  Yet they are still a part of your network.

Dunbar's number may be refined over time to form a more coherent theory - and it's definitely an interesting starting point.  The problem is that Wong's "Monkeysphere" concept takes this hypothetical construct and extrapolates it to the cold and unfounded "fact" that you cannot even have empathy for more than 150 people at any given time.  This is blatantly untrue.  Hell, between TV, books, and movies, you can probably name more than 150 fictional people that you empathize with.  The Monkeysphere is an extremely cynical misinterpretation and misapplication of a thought experiment.

The problem with TBIFS (remember when I was talking about that like three thousand words ago?) is that it relies on the Monkeysphere.  The idea is actually a pivotal plot point - the entire third act depends on it.

This means that the most outrageous and unbelievable thing in a book about inter-dimensional beings who infect our world with a crazy zombie virus... is that people who aren't infected would be "immune" to caring about those who are.

You can put a lot of craziness in a story, but I think you're asking for too much when you try to redefine humanity.

The bit where I praise things

So after all that bitching and moaning, you might think that I hated the book.  Not true!  TBIFS has much to offer - you just have to view the "science" of it as being on the same level of a SyFy original movie or any number of brainless popcorn films.  ("They're stealing our Internets!")

Once you get past that, you find there's much to enjoy.  In no particular order:

The story structure is excellent.  This might sound like minor praise, but the more I read, the more I realize that good structure is hard to find.  Too many writers insert a lot of subplots or side characters that don't really amount to much, so by the end you just wonder what the hell was the point.  Wong even had this same problem in JDatE - that book had such an odd content / story shift halfway through that it practically comes across as two novellas that were arbitrarily glued together.

TBIFS, on the other hand, is tight.  There are no loose ends.  There are no arbitrary characters.  Even when events seem to be meaningless, they are wrapped up with story progression.  Everything is either a direct cause or a direct effect of everything else.  Wong actually does some clever things with this by inserting minor characters who end up having a major impact on the story purely by accident.

Amy is a great character.  Wong took a minor love interest character from the first book and turned her into one of the central, point-of-view characters in TBIFS.  The end result is fantastic - Amy ends up being not only not just a side character, but quite possibly the single most proactive and influential person in the entire story.  TBIFS is ultimately Amy's story, with John and David being her two idiot sidekicks.

When it is funny, it is some of the funniest stuff I've ever read.  I complained earlier that there's not enough comedic beats, but now I might backtrack a bit and say that I'd rather have a handful of deep belly laughs than a hundred light chuckles.  TBIFS delivers when it counts and Wong was wise enough to save the best laughs for the end.

It is genuinely suspenseful.  When you want to build suspense, the first thing you usually do is set a clock of some sort.  ("We have 8 hours to get off this spaceship before it self-destructs!")  If you do this too obviously it can come across as a bit silly or contrived; more masterful storytellers can set a clock without actually saying it.

Wong plays with this idea by actually doing the exact opposite - he literally states the ticking clock in the chapter headings, like, "2 Days Until Outbreak."  But instead of being silly, the effect is that you always have a clear idea of the passage of time and the consequences that could result if the characters do not get their act(s) together and figure things out.  There are moments where the chapter headings themselves are actually dramatic moments.

It's subtle, but powerful.  There are no dead moments in the story.  There are no parts where you feel like you could skip ahead to "the good stuff."  It's one continuous ride that you'll want to stay on for the entire time.  I'm not sure if there's a nicer thing that can be said.