Everything you think you know about ghosts — they're translucent, they appear in flashes, they speak in moans — is mistaken. At least that's what the amateur sleuth in David Wong's new novel believes, and he wants to set the record straight.
Our collective, ghost-related mythology arose, Wong writes, from Victorian-era portraits, which, due to long exposure times, featured blurred subjects. Real ghosts, on the other hand, just look like you and me. They lurk inside humanoid forms. "And no," Wong says, "they can't be photographed."
It's the sort of cheeky factoid that features heavily on the comedy site Cracked.com, where Wong — pen name of Jason Pargin — is an executive editor. And it's the sort of observation that fans of his previous books, "John Dies at the End" and "This Book Is Full of Spiders," have lauded.
In "What the Hell Did I Just Read," the narrator, Dave, along with his best friend and kindhearted girlfriend, take it upon themselves to fend off an onslaught of paranormal happenings in their home town in the "Bermuda Triangle of the Midwest." Their latest exploit begins with a lost child: Maggie, a small, elfish blonde, "the type of missing kid the news media actually notices." When she turns up the next day, the case is far from closed. Nearly a dozen more kids vanish, leading Dave and his friends on a wild trip that takes them inside corrupt government agencies, a motel run by a libertarian biker gang and to a lake that's become a breeding ground for shape-shifting, memory-altering monsters.
At its best, "What the Hell Did I Just Read" is reminiscent of Douglas Adams's work, stuffed with layers of absurd pastiche. Overwrought professors explain the taxonomy of monsters; Dave shoots said monsters using a T-shirt cannon loaded with knockoff Shrouds of Turin. But the brisk story is too often stalled by crass bits. Dave and his girlfriend live above a sex shop; erotic toys and porn stars are the subjects of hackneyed, recurring gags.
Wong also uses the story's setting as an opportunity to explore issues related to class anxiety. "I've always wondered what it would be like to live in a town that was actually growing," Dave muses, likening his struggle with depression to his city's stagnation. But the novel's breakneck pace doesn't allow the author, his characters or the reader to sit with this question for long. Instead, we're off again, battling a giant praying mantis with a chain saw.
Maddie Crum is a writer and editor in New York. Her work has appeared in Vulture, Literary Hub and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
By David Wong
St. Martin's. 375 pp. $26.99