Upon reflection, The Fear Institute reminded me almost exactly of that time in high school when my friends and I were watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Clever concept, witty one-liners, apt characterization… and then I fell asleep. Every time I tried to watch it. Something to do with the inability of a joke to sustain a plot, I suspect.
Johannes Cabal is minding his own business when three men approach his house with an offer: accompany them into the Dreamlands, and they’ll give him the Key that lets one travel there in body, no mind-altering substance or poetry needed. Cabal agrees, mostly because the knowledge he could gain will likely prove useful in his studies. It isn’t long before fighting their way through a mythical woods, searching for information in a border town, traveling overseas to haunted dead cities and other such feats.
Cabal smiled, technically.
Much like that scene in Python where people are crucified, this is a story that relies on the darkest of humor, or as Dr. Cox once said, that people are “bastard coated bastards” (and thanks to Kemper for that little reminder. Cabal has never been particularly nice, but now he’s downright self-serving with more than a tendency to regard people as disposable commodities. So while the beginning is certainly funny, it gets old, particularly since in this case, not only is he dead serious, but there’s little redemption for it.
“Have you ever looked at your fellow man? It is not edifying. I have hopes that time and evolutionary forces may improve matters or, failing that, eliminate us and give something else a chance. I think that insects deserve a turn.”
Characterization is well done. Cabal seems a bit more ruthless, a bit less human in this book than in #1. The Dreamworld is reasonably well done, and if it feels a bit like our team is traveling through Epic 101, I suspect it’s a point Howard might be trying to make. There is a bit that’s more out of the Carroll/Dick school of writing, so as always, reader mileage may vary.
There were no longer any unexplained sounds to haunt them… But this did not settle their nerves: if there is one thing more disquieting then an unexplained sound, it is a silence after an unexplained sound.
Somewhere past the pirate sequence, things started to stall for me. Like a movie without a competent director, it stalled on its one concept, and I found myself having to choose between quitting, skimming and sleeping. Skimming it was, so I’m afraid I lost some of the philosophical bon mots of the journey. When we get to Cabal’s elaborate solution, I could have cared less. Not by much, you understand–I had just enough caring left to want to finish. It was just like the end of that evening in front of the television and VCR; aware by sheer stubborness, I had remained awake, but had virtually nothing but self-satisfaction to show for it.
Oh, and the teaser end merits an eyeroll, for being entirely inconsistent with the rest of the story, characters, motif, everything. I’d give this a two and half stars for how little I enjoyed the second half, except for the writing in the first was entertaining, and the (view spoiler) quite clever.