I promised myself that if I met certain goals during September, I would celebrate by buying The Fear Institute, the third book in Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal series. Have I ever said that I have a great and twisted love for the Johannes Cabal books? Because I do. They were delicious escapism for me this past March and April, when I was in the stressed-out process of moving to Boston and needed distraction. (Yes, my escapism has crypts and necromancers and contracts with Satan. And your point is?) Turns out they're still delightful when I'm not under a lot of pressure.
” ’ For tonight only,' ” Horst held his hands up to an imaginary sign. ” ‘Thrown out of the best universities, excommunicated from all the most popular religions and many obscure ones, fresh from his recent engagement in Hell, we present Johannes Cabal, necromancer!” ‘
The premise as established in Necromancer is that our chilly blond antihero Cabal is a fantasyland equivalent of Herbert West, out to conquer Death and not caring whose head he breaks on the way. (His parents moved the family from Germany to England in his childhood. He swears in weeaboo German and despises the British, yet he favors tea over beer, lives in the fantasyland!English countryside, and loathes German culture. In fact he despises almost everyone.) He sold his soul to the Devil years ago, in exchange for arcane knowledge. At book's start he's realized that he needs his soul back in order to ever gain by that knowledge. The Devil makes a deal with him: Cabal will regain his soul if he goes out into the world and claims one hundred more souls for the Devil in exchange.
"It's a philosophical minefield!"
Cabal had a brief mental image of Aristotle walking halfway across an open field before unexpectedly disappearing in a fireball. Descartes and Nietzsche looked on appalled. He pulled himself together. --Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
To do this, Cabal has to operate a demonic traveling carnival which Tempts Mortals to Damnation, like the one in Something Wicked This Way Comes. There is much mayhem and sturm und drang, and many cool stealth parodies/pastiches/homages of eminent horror writers and settings. I found references to Lovecraft, M.R. James, the Call of Cthulhu RPG, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan Le Fanu within one two-page scene. Whole chapters are given over to specific pastiches, such as a scene where an expy of Nigel Molesworth writes a school report on his visit to the carnival. It's not spoiling too much to tell you that everything works out OK for Cabal, though unfortunately not for a lot of the other characters.
"He was tired, more tired than he could ever remember being, and for a man who regarded sleep as a necessary evil, this was very tired indeed. Despite it, he had no desire to rest his head. No doubt he was well past the point where sleep came easily. Besides, he might dream." --Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
It's a wildly good and flawed book. I agree with David Langford's review as seen here. Its strength lies in Howard's instinct for combining broad comedy with horror and poignancy. He has a light touch and a gift for understatement that make the sad and tragic moments powerful, and make the funny scenes come as a needed release of tension rather than as inappropriate mood swings. The weakness is that he tends to beat his jokes to death like an early Terry Pratchett, includes many verses of pointless filksong, and hasn't really worked out the rules of Hell and Damnation well enough for the plot to come to a satisfying conclusion. You get the strong feeling, reading Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, that here is an author learning as he goes.
At the Ferris wheel, the two men watched it spin endlessly.
“You see?” said one. “It never ends. Wheels within wheels. Infinite angles.”
“Yes! Yes! Ouroboros incarnate! Swallowing his own tail!” --Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
"Without the necessary chemicals, we'll lose whatever wits are still floating around his cooling brain. The only more immediate alternative that I can think of is a Tantric ritual involving necrophiliac sodomy and, frankly, I don't think my back is up to it. So, if you will excuse me?” --Johannes Cabal
Johannes Cabal is still a convincing anti-heroic lead despite being a magic worker in a tech-centered setting. Indeed, his permanently foreign nature and his esoteric skills make him a good audience stand-in without his ever having to be stupid or clueless. There's even a scene of necromancy that helps the plot along without any sense of magical cheating. And it's understated and even funny, and sad as all hell. Cabal's magic can do a few very powerful specific things, but he can't just pull new skills out of his ass to cheat the plot; the author plays fair with the reader and there's not a deus ex machina in sight. The big twist and all the little twists at the end are amply satisfying as well. It left me going YES MORE OF THIS SORT OF THING NOW PLEASE. Another Langford review with which I agree.
Sometimes he wished he still lacked a soul. It hurt so much.
--Johannes Cabal the Detective
My only negative criticism is that Howard insults his female characters a couple of times for no good reason in a bid for humor. It's the bog-standard double standard: lol you're frigid, lol you're a whore. The narrative voice makes cruel jokes about one woman's being an old maid and another woman calls a third woman a slut, in a supposedly ironic fashion where she's pointing out the double standard. It's kinda funny, yet left a bad taste in my mouth. Oh, well, two grains of sand in an otherwise excellent salad.
In the first book, cold, severe, ascetic, self-serving Johannes Cabal was offset by his warm-hearted, charismatic, Lawful Good older brother Horst Cabal, who is working with him because reasons. Horst is the bishonen in the family and he's one of the most decent-natured vampires you'll ever meet. (Long story.) Kind-hearted, morally tormented, and a ladies' man: in fact, Horst is so much more fun to be around than Johannes that he bids fair to take over the first book, which is probably why he doesn't appear in the second. It's time to prove that Johannes Cabal can carry an entire plot by himself. And he does, with great aplomb. (Despite the cry of fandom at large, as if millions of voices had wailed HORST BABY COME BACK and were then stilled forever.)
Look, what's bothering you? It's the homoerotic aspect, isn't it? [...] Well, don't flatter yourself. It's just a transfusion, for crying out loud. --Horst on feeding from Johannes
The Fear Institute is apparently "Cabal goes to Lovecraft-land, as seen in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." It was never released in the States, for bullshit reasons; apparently the prospective US publishers screwed everyone by canceling at the last minute, and have yet to offer an explanation. This sucks, because Jonathan Howard loses out. He may not want to write a fourth book at this rate--which would suck for the readership, given that The Fear Institute ends on a cliffhanger by all accounts. I am about to go buy it on Kindle, as a reward to myself for getting through September.
Things I hope:
--Howard's complex style and dry humor will have developed even further than they had in the last book.
--The Dreamlands will be a fertile field for original worldbuilding.
--We'll get more backstory for Johannes.
--Horst will turn back up. (Judge me.)
Things I fear:
--There will be Lovecraftian send-ups out the wazoo, leaving little time for originality.
That's about it, really. Let's Do This.
OH also, I almost forgot: exquisite fanart showing Horst at an all-time low, as he first appears in the series (vampirized, severely depressed, filthy, and eating spiders). Here you go. The picture inspired this whole post, to be honest. Damn, it feels good to just sit around and gush about books with no goal greater than just gushing about books. Been working too hard lately.