Clive Barker Says This Book is “Terrifying” & It’s Becoming a TV Series
Finding a good horror novel is such a treat, and finding one with a hilariously dark sense of humor? Well that’s a damn goldmine. If you’re in search for such treasures, Jason Pargin’s John Dies at the End comes highly recommended.
Adapted into a film of the same name in 2012 – directed by genre great Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) – John Dies at the End has unexpectedly flourished into a series of novels. The just-released fourth entry (titled If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe) creates a high-stakes, end-of-the-whole-damn-world type of scenario (complete with interdimensional brain-sucking parasites and a teen sorcerer cult) and the fate of everything lies in the mostly incapable hands of a cynical rag-tag team, who are once again in way above their pay grade.
Pargin – who formerly wrote under the pen name David Wong (the main character and narrator of John Dies at the End) – sat down with Kelly from the Murmurs from the Morgue podcast to discuss his books, his rise on BookTok, and why useless animal sidekicks make a great addition to a team.
Read on for a segment of our conversation. You can listen to the full interview over at the Murmurs From the Morgue Podcast (available wherever you find your podcasts) and click here to find If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe.
Kelly McNeely: Your style is kind of cosmic horror comedy, where did the inspirations or influences come from, for John Dies at the End and the Zoey Ashe series?
Jason Pargin: I was a big horror fan growing up, partly just because that’s what everybody was reading. I was a child of the 80s and Stephen King was – it’s hard to overstate if you weren’t alive at that time, what a phenomenon Stephen King was. Like, everyone’s heard of Stephen King, but you don’t understand, it was like JK Rowling and Harry Potter many times over. Everybody had a Stephen King paperback at school. So I think I kind of got into reading horror, just because that’s what was cool. But it clearly, for whatever reason, resonated with me. Not for any reason I can articulate. Maybe a psychologist could explain it, but I just loved it.
So the stories that became the novel, John Dies at the End, this was among the very first pieces of fiction I ever wrote. I mean, I did stuff in school, I wrote short stories for creative writing classes, that kind of thing. But when it came time to just write something, again, on the internet that I was giving away for free, doing it purely for fun, and to make my friends laugh. It just seemed like some kind of a horror comedy was perfect.
I love the juxtaposition between the worst possible thing happening, seen through the eyes of someone who just has a truly ridiculous and skewed view of the world. Like their interpretation of what’s happening is so inappropriate that it makes me laugh. And so that wound up being the first thing that I had the energy to want to keep coming back to. Because your first audience, if you’re writing something long form as this turned out to be, is you. If you’re not jazzed by it, you’re not going to finish it. So in terms of like, why was this your first novel, this is the first format or genre that excited me enough to want to keep coming back to it for 150,000 words. And that’s saying something.
I think most people who try to write a book or anything long form, where they wind up kind of petering out, it’s for that reason, because they themselves don’t enjoy coming back to it. That’s the danger. For a young writer trying to come up with something they know is going to sell, or trying to see what’s hot, i’s like, none of that matters if it doesn’t excite you enough to finish it. So in terms of what motivated me to do it, at the time The X Files was big. You could look at all those things I was watching in the late 90s. But honestly, I think I just found the thing that my personality was the most jazzed about.
Kelly McNeely: The movie adaptation of John Dies at the End has gained a bit of a cult following – being directed by John Coscarelli. It’s a fantastically fun film. So along with the book, which is also getting this amazing following, what has that progress and development been like, starting from – as you were saying – this story that you wrote online for your friends and for yourself, and how it’s developed in this in this big thing, this big multi part, multi novel creature of its own?
Jason Pargin: That’s the thing where if I had sat down and planned for it to happen, I don’t think it would have happened. It’s kind of something that I stumbled into. And I have come to learn that in most people’s big projects, that’s how it happened. For example, Star Wars only occurred because George Lucas was trying to make a Flash Gordon movie, and he couldn’t get the rights because another studio was in the process of making what would become their Flash Gordon movie, so he had to sit down and rewrite his Flash Gordon script and just change some words around, and out came Star Wars. Like, that wasn’t his passion, his passion was Flash Gordon and these 1950s serials and that kind of that style of storytelling. And he stumbles across a phenomenon that is much bigger than Flash Gordon.
Well, in my case, the first John Dies at the End, as something fans know – most people who only know the books don’t realize this – but I had this blog, Pointless Waste of Time. And in the early 2000s, there was a format of article on that blog where it was something that would start out sounding very normal and straightforward, and would just get progressively stupider paragraph by paragraph until finally, at the end, you would realize that I’d wasted your time. That’s the name of the site. So I had fake interviews in there with celebrities, that for the first bit, they sounded normal, and then their answers just got stranger and stranger. And the joke was like, okay, how far can you go in this before you realize? And then people who were fans of the site, they knew the format, and that was part of the fun, knowing this is confusing other people.
So that Halloween, I did a blog post, it was just a fictional ghost story that was told in the first person, like this is a real thing that happened to me and my friend. And it starts out as just again, very straightforward. You know, I show up at my friend’s house, he says this girl has said that her house was haunted, and she wants us to stay there overnight to see if we can observe something happening. And it sounds like a very straightforward ghost story. And then it just keeps getting stranger and stranger. And then within a few pages, they’re being chased around the house by this pile of processed meat products that have become possessed from this woman’s freezer. So it was just this prank, like everything on the site. But people loved that so much that the next Halloween they demanded another one of those.
It became this yearly thing, and each one built on the last with the joke that it’s titled John Dies at the End, like I’m telling you where this is gonna go. And at some point, I had arrived at what was the natural end of the story, again, like 150,000 words, and this is a time when it was unusual to publish a novel length thing on the internet. There was no fanfiction scene at that time as it exists now, where there are multiple sites and all of these different platforms that are great for young writers, and a lot of novelists have come out of that scene. When I started this in 1999 or whatever, that wasn’t a thing. So it was just like, well, nobody told me not to do this. So I now had this novel that was being posted for free on my website. And people wanted it in paper form, because that is an awful way to try to read a novel, with an old CRT monitor shooting radiation into your eyes the whole time. So I had done a self published edition that I sold at cost just for people that wanted it because again, this was not a for profit venture at this point. To be frank, the internet is still not not really a for profit adventure for anyone, except for a few billionaires at the top.
A small indie press called Permuted Press came along, and they said, we can get you a nicer paperback of this, and we can actually sell it on Amazon. And I signed a deal with them for an advance of a few hundred dollars, but that wasn’t important, it was just that this way, it would be an officially printed book with an ISBN number that you can go to a bookstore and request a copy of. And that, to me, felt like the pinnacle of my writing career would be the one time I wrote a thing that was in some bookstores that we sold a few thousand copies of. Which is really good for a first book, even one that’s published by a real publisher, but this is just purely through online word of mouth, that’s how many people tried to read it online and got such a headache. They’re like, I will literally pay 20 bucks to read this on paper, this is ruining my vision. It will save me having to get LASIK surgery later to just be able to read it on paper.
So somehow one of those few thousand copies winds up in the hands of Don Coscarelli – who I assume iHorror fans know his name – but if not, he did the series Phantasm he did the movie Bubba Ho-Tep where Bruce Campbell plays Elvis, or a man who thinks he’s Elvis. And he contacts me out of the blue wanting to not just get the film rights to this, but to actually make it, which is a huge difference. There’s lots of people who have sold film rights to things for $10k or whatever they get offered, and that’s the last you ever hear. They usually just wind up in a mountain of property somewhere. But he wanted to make it. I think everybody thought he was doing a Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, and that was probably in development. But for whatever reason, I think that project got stalled. So he’s like, I want to make this, who’s your agent?
But it’s like, I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a publisher. I don’t have an editor. I don’t have anything. I work at an insurance company doing data entry. Again, I don’t have a job doing some other writing job. I’ve never been paid for writing. I’m a guy who works in a cubicle typing numbers into a series of boxes on a screen all day. That’s it. So I had to go hire an attorney to look at the paperwork. It’s like, have you ever seen one of these before? This guy wants to buy the film rights, can you just make sure I’m not signing away my life here? And then we do that. And then I move on with my life.
I still had a successful blogging career in the sense that I had become popular as a blogger, but was making no money off of it, which is the way the internet again usually works. You can get an audience but that’s it. And I didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. And then, like two years later or so, he comes back and says, hey, we have Paul Giamatti on board as producer, we’ve worked casting the last few parts, we are going to start shooting this soon. And that’s in 2012, I think it was five years after he bought the rights, I guess. 2007 he bought the rights, 2012 the film opened at Sundance. I flew out there, got to do publicity with the cast and all those people, they took pictures, we went around, we did the premiere screening at one of the midnight showings out there.
A big publisher, St. Martin’s Press – which is an imprint of Macmillan, one of the three giant publishers that are left – they came along and bought the rights to release it in hardcover. They signed me to a new book deal to do a sequel, that became This Book is Full of Spiders, that made the The New York Times bestseller list, and that made my writing career.
But as much work as I put into it, writing this book for free for half a decade before anything occurred with it, I have this career because of this break. Because this one guy ran into one copy of this incredibly obscure book – from his point of view. And not only saw it and liked it, but wanted to make a movie about it, made a movie about it, and made a movie good enough that it still plays. It went first to DVD and then played on cable, and now is on streaming. It’s on – I think – Hulu now, but it played on Netflix for a few years. It’s on Amazon Prime. And it just plays and plays and plays. And every few hundred people that watch it, they run out and buy a copy of the book. And that has made my writing career in many cases. That’s the only difference between me and so many other great writers that toil in obscurity for decades. It’s just that I just got that one break.
Kelly McNeely: And you also have the Zoey Ashe series (Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, and Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick). Can you talk a little bit about the development of that series and how that character developed?
Jason Pargin: They signed me to a multi book deal, and it was the first time I said, Well, I don’t just want to be writing this one series for the rest of my life, it doesn’t seem like anyone wants that. And I had just this other idea of a science fiction series where it’s the future, and due to technology, certain kinds of basically superhuman abilities are possible. But there’s just one crew of people where their superpower is just bullshit. They’re just incredibly good liars and manipulators and salespeople. It’s kind of like, I guess, Don Draper from Mad Men. It’s about how of all the possible powers you can have – from light to invisibility to super strength to whatever – nothing beats being able to deceive people and manipulate people.
So there’s this crew of people and they have like psyops training, and they kind of run this giant criminal organization. And then I thought, what would be the funniest possible person to be in charge of that group? And it wound up being this 22 year old girl from a trailer park, who has this very smelly cat that she likes, and she – through a convoluted series of events – winds up basically inheriting this criminal empire. So you have this sprawling city of the future, with all of these elaborate over the top vigilantes and criminals and basically almost semi human monsters, and this crew of ultra high class smooth operators and con men. And they’re all just led by Zoey Ashe, this young girl from a trailer park who just out of the blue inherited all of this and decided to stay.
So it’s the most ridiculous fish out of water story I could imagine. And then she realizes, as you would expect – if you’ve seen stories like this – that she’s more suited to this than she thinks. I think in a lot of cases of women winding up in a totally male dominated world, you can kind of be undermined by the idea that none of them see you that way, and yet, kind of like wind your position every single minute of every single day. And so that’s what she has to do. It’s like the most absurd version of this real life scenario where someone coming in from outside and at first, they’re very disdainful of, you know, how she got there, or how she got that position, or having to report to her, and she kind of has to earn their respect. So it is very much a similar tone to the John Dies at the End books, but it is coming at the world from a totally different point of view. And the things that these stories are about are different from what the John and Dave stories are about.
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