Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

The Necromancer

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of creepy carnies, Devil’s bargains
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2


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.


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8 Responses to Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

  1. neotiamat says:

    Juuuuust finished this. It’s basically a book for horror-nerds like me (I confess I cracked up at his reference to Dracula. The Loofah Lady!)

    It’s an excellent book, though the tone felt a bit uneven to me. The early part was a stellar black comedy… then you have that kid-o-vision thing which was sillier than most of the rest, and then you enter into the finale of the book, which takes a turn for the serious initially before coming to a tense conclusion. I’m not saying any of this is necessarily *bad*, but I did find the shifts in tone somewhat rough (especially the shift from black comedy to moral despair).

    Still, I had a blast reading this, and am off to find Book 2.

    • thebookgator says:

      Funny that you characterize it as for horror-nerds, because I tend to be squeamish about horror. Agree with you that the tone could have been smoothed out some–i started skimming because I really wanted to finish. What I appreciated about the near-ending is that Cabal had a sort of consequence to his self-involved and obsessive behavior. The confrontation with Satan was entirely in line with the rest of the book. I’m not sure how I feel about the very, very end–that felt like more of a crutch to me, a way to humanize someone who is essentially, a misanthrope.

      • neotiamat says:

        I think this is a case of First Book-itis. Howard had some very good ideas with regards to pacing, tone, and the like, and I agree that the broad arc was a good one (including what you say about consquences), but hadn’t quite the writing chops to pull it off (and to be fair, it would be a pretty tricky bit of plotting). In the end, I appreciate the effort and I recognize the challenge, even while I admit that Howard didn’t *quite* pull it off.

        As for the horror-nerd stuff… well. I’m not actually a big horror reader (I have a thoroughly non-visual imagination, so it’s usually pretty hard to scare me with text, however eloquent). But horror and gaming is closely intertwined, so I know quite a bit about it. And I loved Howard’s references. The Dracula thing with the Bloofer Lady, the reference to Dennis Wheatley (author of British satanic stories from the WWII era), seeing Ramsey Campbell’s Brichester… these are all things which I know about but I’m used to hardly anyone else knowing about them, so it was fun to see them.

      • thebookgator says:

        I just re-read it. I still love all the little witticisms and literary jokes but you are absolutely right, pacing/construction is a bit of a problem. Hopefully it will improve with the next books–I have the next two coming from the library.
        My imagination is far too active, so I avoid horror. Thanks for mentioning/explaining the three you did.

  2. neotiamat says:

    So, I knew I’d heard this name before. Turns out that Howard is, among other things, an old fan of tabletop gaming (D&D et al), and once wrote an article for Wizards of the Coast on how to use Johannes Cabal in a game. I had to use the Wayback Machine to find it, but here’s a bit of trivia for you:

    I’ve got to say, judging by his recommendations, Howard has *excellent* taste in his gaming.

  3. neotiamat says:

    I just finished reading the other three books and all of the short stories I could find (pretty much all of it but for the Ereshkigal Working). Miscellaneous thoughts…

    –Howard gets better at smoothing out his pacing. He still has a bad habit of trying to fit multiple ‘types’ of stories into a single book, but the transitions are generally smoother.
    –Book 2 is, in my opinion, the very best of the lot. Smooth tone throughout, comprehensible plot, enormous fun. Book 3 starts off very well, but takes a left turn into ‘meh’ at the 3/4ths mark. Book 4 starts weak, gathers steam at the 2/3rds mark, and has a pretty solid conclusion.
    –The short stories were quite good, particularly the Long Spoon one, the Blustery Day, and the House of Gears

    Fundamentally, I think Howard is at his pinnacle when he uses Johannes Cabal for maximum black comedy, and when he has Cabal playing off other characters (Horst, for instance). The stories falter a bit whenever Cabal is off screen or on his own for too long.

    That said, all of it had incredibly fun moments, and the fact that I pretty much swallowed the entire series in a gulp shows that Howard can maintain a very interesting story.

    • thebookgator says:

      Wow, you don’t waste any time! I’ll look forward to two and three then. I enjoyed Blustery. What you said about plotting makes sense, as well as Cabal needing to have someone to play off of. It is a tricky line, to manage Cabal’s logical self-centered amorality without making him completely unlikable. His wit certainly helps.

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