Sunday, December 18, 2011
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is the first of Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal books (Necromancer was followed by Johannes Cabal the Detective and Johannes Cabal the Fear Institute has recently been published).
Johannes Cabal is a brilliant scientist who in an attempt to create true life after death, (that’s where the necromancy comes in) has sold his soul to Satan. He finds that not possessing a soul interferes with his research, so makes another deal with the Lord of Darkness. In exchange for the return of his soul he will procure another 100. He has a year to collect them, failure to deliver on his end of the bargain will mean that his soul is forever forfeit to the Devil. To help his ‘servant’ Satan gives Cabal a carnival, and the necromancer himself recruits his brother; Horst, into the endeavour. The problem is that deals with the Devil are never what they seem and even the devious Johannes is going to find this a hard task to accomplish.
There are echoes of Faust and Ray Bradbury in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, with it’s talk of deals involving souls with the Devil and evil carnivals (the authors note at the back does own to being inspired by the Bradbury classic; Something Wicked This Way Comes). I myself kept being reminded of an episode of The Muppet Show in which Alice Cooper was the guest star, and spent the entire episode trying to coerce the puppets into signing their souls over to his employer Satan.
Howard has given himself a hard task by making Johannes Cabal his ‘hero’. The necromancer is not a likeable protagonist. He’s rude, intolerant, humourless, driven and then there’s the whole raising people from the dead thing. Strangely enough I found myself on Johannes’ side a lot of the time, though. He does harvest the souls of some pretty unpleasant people. Conversely his brother Horst (Horst is a vampire, the v word is never actually mentioned, but he drinks blood, sunlight is anathema and he does say at one point that he is undead), a character normally thought of as evil, is actually rather a nice chap. It’s he who makes Johannes see that taking the soul of an innocent child (the priceless chapter 9) or a young mother driven to the edge of sanity by her continually crying baby, is not the right thing to do. Horst often seems to act as his brother’s conscience. It’s implied, although never explained, that Johannes is somehow responsible for what Horst has become.
The writing style (it’s written in 3rd person) is reminiscent of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and even Jasper Fforde at times. The conversational, slightly random explanations did bring Adams and Pratchett (there were even footnotes) to mind. I must confess to particularly enjoying the story of the duplicitous Druin family. The oft referred to chapter 9 is partially narrated by Timothy Chambers, a young visitor to the carnival and is a comic highlight of the book.
It’s hard to categorise Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. It’s part dark fantasy, part comic fantasy, and part dark humour. The comedy does become much darker as the story unfolds and the ending is tragic in many ways. There’s a fascinating expedition into the mind of a serial killer in the inoffensive person of Mr Simpkins, which I suspect is chillingly close to reality. With most funny fantasy, you read it, laugh at it, forget it immediately after. Not Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, this one will stay with me for a long time.
One slightly odd thing was the timing of the book. It had a 1950’s or 60’s quality about it, yet certain elements seem to suggest that it was set about now, however the style of dress and the way the characters acted, not to mention their ages and the references to WW II kept me thinking that it was set in the middle of the 20th century. I also felt the that subplot of Cabal’s efforts being thwarted by one of Satan’s minions was never really satisfactorily resolved and didn’t quite belong in the book overall.
This was a really well written and hard to write book, and I look forward to finding out more about Johannes Cabal.