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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Anxiety and Apocalyptic Road-Trips in ‘I’m Starting to Worry About This Black Box of Doom’ [Review]

The rise of widely available internet during the late 90s and early 2000s gave up-and-coming authors a brand-new avenue through which they could share their words with the world without the need for publishers. Back then, free-to-read blogs and personal websites weren’t just gathering places for readers, they were also a forum that allowed writers to directly connect with their audience and spin yarns that old timey editors would probably have considered too niche for mainstream publication.

And while not all of these online stories were created equal, with some ending up unfinished and forever trapped in cyberspace, others became so popular that the leap from screen to the printed page was all but inevitable. One of my favorite examples of this is the iconic John Dies at the End, a book series that originally began as a hilarious in-universe blog run by “David Wong” (who we now know as Jason Pargin) before turning into a best-selling franchise complete with an underrated big-screen adaptation directed by Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli.

Throughout the years, Pargin has continued to expand his JDatE universe and has even dipped his toes into other genres while also making online history as a TikTok sensation, Podcast co-host (I’m a huge fan of Bigfeets in particular) and a legendary run as the former editor of comedy website Cracked. That’s why I was stoked to hear that 2024 would see the release of Pargin’s first standalone novel in nearly a decade, as I think the author is at his best when trying new things.

Titled I’m Starting to Worry About This Black Box of Doom (which is right up there with This Book is Full of Spiders and Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick as far as excellent Jason Pargin book titles go), the upcoming novel is meant to be Jason’s first foray into more “grounded” fiction.

In the book, we follow anxiety-prone Twitch streamer and Lyft driver Abbot as he’s recruited by a mysterious young woman named Ether to help her transport an ominous-looking box across the United States in exchange for a life-changing sum of money. The only catch is that Abbot must leave his cell phone and digital life behind while also keeping the true nature of the trip secret from his friends and family. Unfortunately for the unlikely duo, their little road trip soon snowballs into a nation-wide panic as rumors spread about the potentially nation-destroying contents of the box, with our main characters becoming targeted by homicidal bikers, retired FBI operatives and the most dangerous pursuers of all – paranoid Redditors.

Basically, it’s Bonnie and Clyde for the social media age!

On the surface, Black Box of Doom might seem like a standard (and somewhat literal) mystery box thriller – a narrative structure that I have a great deal of contempt for due to how often it’s been mishandled in popular media over the past decade or so – but Jason goes out of his way to make it clear that the absurd conspiratorial thinking surrounding the box and the duo transporting it are the real story here.

The book may lack the patented combination of dick jokes and cosmic horror that made the JDatE novels so memorable, but genre fans will be pleased to hear that this more grounded thriller still manages to tap into some very real frights, including but not limited to incel uprisings, domestic terrorism and the psychological dangers of being perpetually online.

Jason’s iconic brand of crass humor is still present, with the book featuring laugh-out-loud descriptions of furry porn and extraterrestrial conspiracy theories, but these elements, alongside the violence traditionally associated with Pargin’s work, have been significantly toned down in order to better fit the unexpectedly uplifting themes of this catastrophic road trip. This softer approach may not work for everyone, but I think it complements the story’s virtual chaos rather nicely.

It’s notoriously difficult for storytellers to incorporate modern conveniences like smartphones and online subcultures into their plots without bringing to mind Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do fellow kids?” meme, but Pargin has miraculously captured a snapshot of the current cultural zeitgeist despite no longer being the same spry young man who wrote JDatE. I mean, the book’s vocabulary alone could only have been achieved by someone who actually put in the time and participated in actual internet communities instead of merely researching them from the outside – something that I can appreciate as someone who literally grew up online.

And yet, despite the hilariously accurate Reddit post and Twitch chat simulations, the story still diligently tackles serious themes and even contains a couple of nail-biting moments of tension – with a traffic pile-up involving hot sauce and cottage cheese being particularly memorable. Of course, as a fan of Jason’s more personal work (like his classic articles about the adult consequences of growing up in poverty), the highlight of the experience for me was finding unironic nuggets of both wisdom and genuine vulnerability hidden among Ether’s witty trivia and Abbot’s immature rants.

Unfortunately, the Black Box of Doom can be decidedly heavy-handed in its messaging at times, especially when it comes to Ether. Her character often feels more like an impossibly patient paragon of virtue meant to represent the author’s beliefs rather than a fully-fledged person. While this is somewhat mitigated by her backstory reveal towards the latter half of the experience, it’s a shame that such an engaging story is often bogged down by monologues about the current state of society – especially when some of these lectures could have been summed up as “can’t we all just get along?”.

Thankfully, the book mostly makes up for these naïve moments with some well-placed jokes, frequently reminding readers that this story isn’t meant to be taken seriously. There’s also a very welcome recognition that the issues plaguing modern society are actually much larger and more complex than internet-induced anxiety and cultural warfare, something that can be seen in the novel’s willingness to present us with conflicting opinions without necessarily pointing fingers at who’s really to blame for all the evil in the world.

Plus, as a lifelong internet weirdo, I really dig how the book incorporates the infamous Killdozer story into the narrative without it feeling like a complete parody.

Ultimately, Black Box of Doom is an experiment in empathy, challenging readers to engage with a disparate collection of shifting points of view and offering up a rare glimpse into the collective subconscious of modern-day America. The opinions presented here aren’t necessarily correct or even healthy (with even our main character suffering from incel-adjacent biases), but Pargin does a great job of reminding us that these are all just human beings trying to get by in an insane world.

I may still prefer the otherworldly madness of the JDatE books, as I think Pargin’s juvenile sense of humor pairs wonderfully with both mind-melting terror and fascinating insights into the human condition, but I’m Starting to Worry About This Black Box of Doom is undeniably one of his best stories yet. Longtime fans might be a little disappointed at how tame this adventure is when compared to the author’s previous yarns, but I think the book still packs one a hell of a punch once you remember that we’re only a couple of news stories away from this satire becoming reality.

I’m Starting to Worry About This Black Box of Doom comes out September 24, but it’s available now for pre-order wherever you get your books.

4 out of 5 skulls

The post Anxiety and Apocalyptic Road-Trips in ‘I’m Starting to Worry About This Black Box of Doom’ [Review] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.



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