I recently read Johannes Cabal Necromancer, which is the debut novel from British writer Jonathan L. Howard. The premise for the plotline is that Cabal had long ago lost his soul to the Devil in order to receive bountiful necromantic knowledge. At the start of the book, we find Cabal in a sorry and aggravated state, having discovered his study of necromancy cannot continue without it -- it being his soul. So he strikes a bargain, or rather a wager, with the Devil in affect declaring his intention to procure for the Devil 100 souls in one year, and the Devil gives him a carnival of sorts to do it with. Sure, the evil carnival is a staple, we’ve seen it in Matheson’s work, in Lovecraft’s, and in Bradbury’s, and I loved the HBO show, which sadly got cancelled for reasons unknown. Even so, I was due for some evil carnival and a protagonist that could rub me in all the wrong ways. I also love very dry sarcastic British humour, of which, this book has plenty, and I love a Faustian story, especially when what appears on the surface is not the true essence of the story.
In my wanderings, I saw a lot of negative reviews of the book, mostly of the wanting mainstream styled writing, wanting endless back story, and wanting character motivation explored ad nausea. Sure Cabal was a snobby self-centred asshole who couldn’t give a damn about anything but what he wanted ... and the Devil came off foolish. Many questioned how could the Devil fall for such trickery? I’ll explain how I saw that later. And yes, the other characters in the book seemed trivial and one dimensional, but that’s because they were and were meant to be it seemed to me. I felt the real essence of the story centred around Cabal trapped by his own design in a carnival house of mirrors, forced to look at his own reflection by proxy, and when his real motivations are revealed in the end -- by the end I mean the very last page -- it’s so subtle that many readers might find it to be anti-climactic. Do we really always need fire and brimstone in the end? Sure, I had my issues with the book: I personally would have liked the carnival itself to have been fleshed out a little more, but since the focus was truly on Cabal, it wasn’t necessary, even if it would have been enjoyable to read. To me, the author was exploring Cabal himself, so a plot driven action packed story wasn’t really needed in my opinion. But that’s just me. I loved HBO’s Carnivale, and that got cancelled too, which means, maybe my opinion on such things is way off base. In any event, I will be looking for the next instalment of Johannes because by the last page of the book, when the subterfuge and self-preservation tactics fell away from him, I actually truly appreciated him as a character. Pitch-black as he was, he was very charismatic. And the book is just so damn funny. The mockery Howard makes of Hell is hilarious. It’s dark comedy written with an absurdist’s sense of style. Sure, it’s a bit different than the normal redemption story, and I liked it because of that. As for everyone whining about how the Devil could be so easily fooled, well, the fact that Devil interfered with Cabal’s quest was really a matter of principle. We would expect the Devil to play dirty, but he didn’t play as dirty as he could have, which lead me to believe that he was not trying to thwart Cabal but to test his mettle. Cabal just had one of those souls that even the Devil couldn’t keep in good conscience.
Despite its perceived flaws, I really enjoyed the book, and I see a promising future for Howard and Johannes Cabal.
Cheryl Anne Gardner