“He smiled with all the warmth of a dollhouse oven.”
― Jonathan L. Howard, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
As the proprietress of a Halloween Lifestyle website, you probably would expect horror to be my favorite literary genre – and you’d be right. You would also be correct to assume that I like comedy that tends toward the Dark Side as well.
However, I am a person of diverse tastes, and in addition to my darker obsessions, I also have a thing for British humor. Anything from Monty Python to Benny Hill, AbFab to Vicious. I think it has something to do with their penchant for dry wit, sarcasm, and a deep appreciation of the absurd. Recently I’ve been absorbed in a series of novels wherein I can indulge all of these passions simultaneously, and I can’t wait to share them with you!
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is the debut novel of Jonathan L. Howard’s series about a brilliant scientist who also happens to be “a necromancer of some little infamy.”
Of course, pursuing necromancy as a profession isn’t easy. It’s not all nonstop glamour – there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes, like frequent graverobbing, stealing ancient occult tomes, and working with demons… and sometimes even the Devil himself.
No, there’s nothing at all heroic about Johannes Cabal, though his aims are noble. He may have a scientific mind, but his real mission in life is to restore the dead to life. In fact, you might say he’s devoted to it, heart and soul. Except for the fact that he long ago sold his soul to obtain dark and mysterious necromantic powers.
Such powers, however, aren’t easy to come by, and sacrifices are usually necessary; in the case of Johannes Cabal, the sacrifice involved handing over his immortal soul to Satan. Unfortunately, he later discovers to his dismay that his lack of a soul is not just personally inconvenient but is in fact a hindrance to his research.
What to do? The obvious solution is to visit the fiery pits of Hell to pay a call on the Devil, strike a new bargain, and get his soul back.
When he arrives there, Cabal discovers that the reality of Hell isn’t just the cackling demons, pitchforks, and fiery lakes of popular mythology. It’s actually worse. Hell is a massive bureaucracy, kind of a DMV of the Damned, where filling out forms for all eternity is a fitting punishment for the wicked. And unfortunately, Cabal’s own soul is filed away somewhere within its soul-crushing confines.
When Cabal finally gets that meeting with Satan to make his pitch, the Boss Man is initially unreceptive. But ruling over the Netherworld has become terribly dull lately… so out of sheer boredom (for his own amusement rather than out of sympathy for Cabal), Satan comes up with a diabolical wager – one, of course, that is likely to end in failure.
In exchange for the return of his soul, Johannes has exactly one year to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls. To make the bet even more interesting, Satan offers Cabal a business opportunity, setting him up as the proprietor of a diabolical traveling carnival staffed by demons and an assortment of reanimated corpses.
What better way to rob ignorant rubes of their souls than a traveling Carnival of Wonders… the perfect trap to attract foolish locals and tempt them into sin, seduction, blasphemy, and murder! Providing Cabal can convince one hundred unfortunates to sign their names on the Devil’s contract, he’ll get his own soul back. But if he fails… eternal damnation!
So with the assistance of a motley crew of carnies and roustabouts created from a host of reanimated corpses and assorted demons, Cabal has exactly one year to beat the Devil at his own game, armed only with his intellect, biting sarcasm, and utter lack of empathy, as well as a very large handgun.
Fortunately, Johannes doesn’t have to go it alone – he recruits the help of his older brother, Horst, who happens to be a Vampire. Despite being an unholy creature of the night, Horst can be rather charming and persuasive, and (unlike Johannes) actually has a functioning moral compass.
As brothers so often do, the Brothers Cabal have a rather contentious relationship. Perhaps it has something to do with Johannes’ early experiments in necromancy being responsible for turning Horst into a vampire? Some people just can’t let go of a grudge.
Somewhat reminiscent of Something Wicked This Way Comes but with a Steampunk vibe, the Cabal Brothers’ Circus of the Damned makes its way through the English countryside, wielding black magic with masterful ease… not to mention the entirely predictable result of mayhem at every stop.
Accomplishing their soul-gathering mission isn’t the only challenge Johannes and Horst face as proprietors of a demonic carnival. They also have to stay a step ahead of the law, angry locals, escaped lunatics, and supernatural adversaries, many of whom are obstacles thrown in their path by the Devil and his minions attempting to sabotage the mission.
Johannes Cabal is not a particularly likeable protagonist. In fact, he’s not likeable at all. He doesn’t have much of a personality, and interpersonal relationships definitely doesn’t come naturally to him. An amateur psychiatrist might call him a sociopath, someone without the least bit of concern for the well-being of the people he encounters, exclusively looking out for Number One. Unfortunately Cabal (unlike your typical sociopath) lacks the charm that allows him to get away with his misdeeds… yet somehow, perhaps thanks to his cleverness and shamelessness, he usually comes out on top.
(You’d think Satan would happily give him back his soul. Who would want this guy hanging around for all eternity? Go figure.)
He’s certainly is a difficult character to cheer for. Rude, snobbish, and unpleasant, completely dismissive of the rules of polite society, and of course, eager to swindle people out of their immortal souls.
But despite his moral and personal shortcomings, one can’t help but admire his resourcefulness even when dealing with the Devil himself. And it’s so much fun to stick around to see what he does next!
If you’re looking for an entertaining read that’s delightfully Gothic, sharply sarcastic, and fiendishly funny, check out Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. After all, with a completely amoral protagonist, a cast of demons, vampires, and zombies (not to mention escaped lunatics), and a sense of humor as dry as a desert, what’s not to love?
Click here to order!
Interested in the further adventures of Johannes Cabal? Click here to check out the rest of the series!
PS – Jonathan L. Howard is also the creator of Carter and Lovecraft, which I reviewed here.