Alternate title: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by the Carnies.
Johannes Cabal is sorely vexed. Some time ago, he traded his soul to the Devil, as it was proving an impediment in his studies of necromancy. Alas, he acted too hastily–after much research, he’s realized that his soul is needed for his research to be have meaning. He might also have an ulterior motive. The epitome of the logistician, the obsessive scientist, Cabal is a hysterical straight man to the absurd humor of those around him. As his brother mocks him:
“‘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 of the obscure ones, fresh from his recent engagement in Hell, we present Johannes Cabal, Necromancer!’ Toot toot toot! He mimed blowing trumpets.
‘You’re a constant font of hilarity, aren’t you?’ said Cabal, unsmiling. ‘And, I’ll have you know that I was never, ever thrown out of my universities. I always left of my own accord.’”
To regain his soul, Cabal makes a second deal with Satan: bring him exactly one hundred souls in a year’s time, and Cabal will get his own back. Hell, Satan’s feeling generous enough to lend him a Dark Carnival that never quite made it into circulation. Or is he? After all, Cabal just suggested Satan apologize to God for his pride. Despite that, Cabal is insightful enough to realize he needs someone who understands human nature. He seeks out his brother Horst, a being with a few unsavory habits but a surprisingly strong ethical code.
“We’re supposed to be doing the devil’s work and you’ve gone and contaminated it all with the whiff of virtue. I really don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of being an agent of evil.”
I enjoy Johannes Cabal’s voice. Howard hits the perfect note, satisfying the little scientist in me, as well as the artist in me annoyed by the scientific worldview, with both sides appreciating the humor from Cabal’s straight-edged approach. Frankly, I also empathize just the littlest bit with his misanthropy, the huddled masses who fail to appreciate the pursuit of science:
“An idea started to crystallize… It might not work, of course, and there was always the possibility that he might have to upset or hurt a few of these excuses for people. So it wasn’t all bad news.”
Plotting is relatively straightforward, much like Something Wicked, only becoming complicated at the end. Like all folktales, what the reader ultimately wants to know is if Cabal was able to escape the Devil’s Bargain, so the majority of the tale centers on collecting souls while the reader anticipates the outcome. In the meantime, the journey the carnival takes through the towns and the details of the carnival entertain. There’s also some interesting character development, or lack thereof, that elevates it beyond simple farce. Midway through, there are a couple sections that are done in epistolary form by various people. A police blotter proves surprisingly funny. The last letter is perhaps a little jarring to the narrative and takes it the most off track.
The ending is a perfect capstone. A bit of an emotional roller-coaster, it ends with a satisfactory and narrative consistent confrontation. I admire Howard for reaching for something a little more complex. I’d recommend this to fans of Something Wicked, perhaps to Pratchett fans, and people who might like their humor a little dark but with solid ethics. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking forward to continuing the series.