David Wong, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It (London: Titan Books, 2012), first edition, 494pp
First of all, rest assured that this sequel to John Dies at the End is as good as, and in my opinion even better, than the first. Like JDatE, This Book is Full of Spiders is a perfect blend of laughs and scares. To appropriate a quote from my brief JDatE review, this second book is genuinely both scary and hilarious, eminently quotable and surprisingly thought-provoking. My mind was blown as early as page 25, when Tennet finished his monologue about the bees (the running theme in Wong's books about our skewed perceptions is particularly appealing to me). By that time, I had already reached the conclusion - first manifested when I read JDatE - that David Wong is a compelling writer. Indeed, Spiders as a whole is an improvement on its predecessor.
Valid criticisms which were laid at JDatE's door included how it was in fact three shorter stories weaved into one - a criticism borne from its original publication as separate segments online. Such a criticism could not be made of this second book, as Wong tells a single story of a zombie outbreak in the town of [Undisclosed] from beginning to end. I am now convinced that JDatE was not a fluke, and with Spiders Wong has proven to be a hilarious comedy writer and adept at the tricky art of pacing. The story flows effortlessly, and not a single word is wasted. For example, early on in the book Wong notes how John always buckles his seat belt in his car, "because he never knew when he would need to ramp something." For any ordinary writer, this would be a throwaway line intended to make the reader laugh, but Wong strives for more than that. Much later in the book, a short chapter ends with "He [John] flicked his cigarette out of the window. He buckled his seat belt." (pg. 369). Readers know what is coming, and it brings a knowing smile, to the author's credit. There are many more examples I could give, but one is sufficient to show just how much consideration went into the writing of Spiders.
Another way in which the book improves on its predecessor is that, moving on from viewing the story solely through Dave's eyes, some chapters are told from the perspectives of John, Amy and, in one case, Molly(!) These make the book much richer than JDatE, as John and Amy offer different amusing perspectives to the events which unfold (and also lend credence to my suspicion that Wong is consciously testing out the theme of skewed perceptions). Molly's chapter (pages 251-5) in particular had me grinning from ear to ear and convinced me even further of Wong's comedic inventiveness. Unsurprisingly, Wong himself explains my response to the book better than I could:
"I'm going to tell the most ridiculous possible version of it [the story of the zombie outbreak] I can think of. People are going to close it and be like, 'What the fuck did I just read?'" (pg. 488).
Actually, page 488 as a whole may be the single funniest collection of sentences ever committed to a single page, as another character comes to Dave to argue about who should sell their story of the zombie outbreak to the media. It is a genuinely fantastic sequence, establishing Wong as a master of meta-comedy. Indeed, any writer who can include a sentence like "Velvet Jesus bit his head off" (pg. 473) without it seeming out of place (or even unusual, given the other things going on) is clearly a writer to get excited about. It's more than just a funny book, though; Wong is excellent in building up a rapport between the characters and the reader - Amy is particularly well-drawn - leading to the emotional 'sacrifice' ending.
Having gushed at length, it seems inappropriate to criticise the book, but I do wish more time had been devoted to the mysterious Shadow Men. The character Marconi describes the time-bending powers of these creatures on pages 466 through 468 - this section explains perfectly why I find them fascinating, and I wish they had formed the bulk of the story, rather than the spiders and 'zombies' (although, refreshingly, Wong's zombies are nothing like your over-exposed Romero-esque zombies). The Shadow Men appear only intermittently, unlike in JDatE. When they do appear, the implications of their power are terrifying (note the creepy incident with Amy's hand on page 471) and I wish they were explored further. Maybe in book three? I can't wait.