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March 2, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

John Dies at the End

Sitting at Elizabeth’s Pizza with a Red Oak while my sleepover pepperoni pie cooks. Just left the Geeksboro matinee.

The movie John Dies at the End is clever, and logically consistent, and funny. Projecting from the movie by Don Coscarelli to the book by David Wong, which I haven’t read, this is an example of how literature is just GOOD genre fiction, in exactly the same way that Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is crime fiction, rendered in exceptionally pretty language. The movie is advertised as being “weird” or “mind-blowing,” and maybe that’s true, but only if this is your first rodeo, if you’re a reader of literary fiction (or a watcher of literary movies, if that’s not a total oxymoron), and you have no idea what’s been cooking on the genre stove for the past hundred years since HP Lovecraft set this particularly nasty pot boiling. Otherwise it’s formula, just done better than most people do it. Nothing wrong with that. Quite a bit right with it, actually, in my humble opinion.

Recent movies like this one feature resilient heroes.  That's one piece of Lovecraft's mythology that has fallen away.  See, Lovecraft says there are some things that are so horrible, so alien to our pedestrian human social structures, that noone, literally noone, recovers from seeing them, knowing them, letting them into your head. This idea penetrated genre literature deeply, for years, to the level of cliche, but it's total bullshit.

The best talk I’ve ever heard on this issue is contained in this podcast from the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. George Bonnano points out that about a third of people subjected to mind-shattering trauma fail to adjust and continue to have psychological problems. He has thirty years of data on this phenomenon, and yet it continues to be counter-intuitive, even to professionals. Why?  I blame Lovecraft, and the ripple effects of his fiction throughout pop culture.

Bonnano’s data show that this particular HPL idea is clearly wrong. Who knows whether Lovecraft actually believed this idea? He may have proposed it as a marketing mutation. He may have had a personal phobia about going mad as the worst possible thing that could happen. Who knows (any number of actual Lovecraft scholars, probably?)? Anyway, lots of writers have latched onto the idea, and it’s become an underlying assumption of pop culture.

Actually, nowadays there’s an additional interesting mythological twist.  Overcoming trauma by piecing together a by-definition irretrievably shattered mind is a now a standard heroic task in movies like The Fisher King. Heroes, by definition, do impossible things. Never mind that it’s not actually impossible, or even uncommon. Heroes need impossible things to do.

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