I feel a kinship with Howard and his sense of humor, a frequently subtle type of reference-filled playfulness that works best if one is paying attention or shares some of the same cultural references. I’m thinking of this particularly as my review for John Dies at the End has been popping up in my feed, a book that was more slapstick-gross than implied humor, and contrasting it with this one which has a cute Princess Bride reference hidden in the text. One of my favorite things about the Cabal series is the way the text is studded with allusions, word-play and imagery that is meant to make one giggle.
“If they had delved beneath the ‘poor little rich girl’ patina… they would have appreciated that the only way that she could have been more dangerous would have been to have had nitroglycerine for blood, had sticks of dynamite for bones, and been fond of hopscotch.
Perhaps one of the challenges of the series is that Johannes Cabal, the central character of the earlier three books, is not a particularly likeable person (nor does he care whether or not you like him). Personally, I identify with his misanthropy, so I’m generally amused. Howard rectifies this with The Brothers Cabal by centering primarily on the charming Horst, Johannes’ older brother and vampire. We had left book three in a frightening state, Johannes nearly dead. Horst immolated himself in book one, The Dark Carnival, so it’s a bit of a surprise for them both when Horst turns up to rescue Johannes.
“Horst shrugged. ‘Perhaps it’s a cyclic thing.’ It was calculated to irritate, calculated with the finesse that only brothers can attain, and it succeeded like pepper under an eyelid.”
Horst was resurrected as part of a nefarious plan (of course), but being the affable, peaceful fellow he is, he soon found himself on the side of the resistance. When they find themselves in deep trouble, it’s clear who they need to call.
“Seriously?’ said Johannes. Being irked was doing wonders for returning some small hints of color to his face. “You seriously posited me as some sort of weapon to dreadful to use? I don’t know whether to be flattered or not. Ah, a resolution is coming to me. No. I’m not flattered.”
Largely told as an extended flashback from Horst’s point of view until the second half, the pacing works very well. The action in his tale contrasts well with the more intimate sickroom banter between the two brothers. I consistently found myself wanting to read faster to relieve the tension of all the dreadful events (although as Johannes points out, we are, after all, here listening to Horst), and read slower so that I could savor the humor. A couple of running gags had me chuckling, especially Howard’s interpretation of zombies, which bear a strong resemblance to Marvin the android from Hitchhikers’ Guide:
“Becky watched as a zombie that had been trying to board the rearmost car fell on its face between the rails. It did not attempt to rise, but lay there facedown, gloomily aware that the Afterlife was proving just as frustrating as Life.”
The setting is roughly early 1900s with trains, guns, and flying machines lending it a Victorian feel. There are various monsters, drawing on the Dracula and Lovecraft tradition. What particularly elevated this was the nicely developed relationship between the two brothers, both in retrospect as Horst discovers Johannes isn’t quite as ethically challenged as he thought, and Johannes in demonstrating his particular brand of affection for Horst. This story won’t work for everyone, but I must say it was pretty close to perfect for me.
“Good Lord,” said the major as he jumped down from the driver’s position to land with a crunch on the gravel track. “Ladies in trousers!”