Book Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

I

just read a really fun book that I’d love to recommend to anyone with a taste for the very darkly humorous: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard.

In JCN, which is how I’m going to shorten it so I don’t have to write out that long title every time, Johannes Cabal makes a deal with the Devil in hopes of counteracting a previous deal Cabal had made with him to gain the powers of necromancy in exchange for his soul. It seems that Cabal has realized, as fate would have it, that he needs his soul in order to continue his “researches,” which are never really defined (at least not initially).  The Devil agrees to return Cabal’s soul provided that, at the end of one year, Cabal has tricked 100 other people to signing their souls over to him. To aid Cabal in his mission, the Devil provides him with a traveling carnival, which immediately made me think of Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. (Not surprisingly, in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Howard writes that Bradbury’s book was a direct inspiration for JCN.)

Cabal and the Devil agree to terms and the one of the first things Cabal does, after killing two would-be muggers and reanimating their corpses for free manual labor, is retrieve his vampire brother Horst from the crypt where Cabal had trapped him almost a decade earlier. Horst is understandably upset about being locked in a marble vault for 8 years, but spares his brother when Cabal indicates that he may be able to reverse Horst’s “condition” in exchange for Horst’s  help running the carnival. It seems Cabal is smart enough to know his own shortcomings, the primary of which is his inability to connect with or understand the average person and what they want. Fortunately, his brother has this ability in spades, and Cabal realizes he has no chance of attracting people to the carnival if his brother doesn’t help. Horst agrees, in the hopes that Cabal will be able to hold up his end of the bargain.

To share any more of the plot would do potential readers a disservice, so I’ll stop there and move on to what I found most impressive about the book. In addition to clever, intelligent use of the language and being really, truly, laugh-out-loud funny in many places, it also manages to do something few books have managed to pull off: it tells the story of a patently unlikeable character in a sympathetic, or at least enjoyable, way.  This trait puts it in pretty estimable company: Confederacy of Dunces—the funniest book I’ve ever read—by John Kennedy Toole; pretty much any novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald; One Fat Englishman, by Kingsely Amis, etc.  By the end of the book, you know…you just know…that you shouldn’t like Cabal. In fact, you should probably hate him…but you can’t. Not only does Cabal’s humanity periodically slip through the cracks in his detached, egotistical façade a number of times in the course of the story, but when the final pages reveal the purpose behind his machinations and what his “research” is you almost have to, if not like him, at least sympathize with him.

JCN doesn’t just leave itself open for a sequel, its last few pages positively demand one. Fortunately, I discovered this book so late that the sequel’s already out: Johannes Cabal the Detective. I plan on getting it for Christmas with one of the many bookstore gift cards I’m sure to receive (hint, hint), and I’ll let you know if it lives up to its predecessor.

Below are the first 500 or so words of the book, which Mr. Howard has graciously permitted me to post here for your enticement. (All text from Johannes Cabal the Necromancer © 2009 by Jonathan L. Howard.)

Chapter 1

In Which a Scientist Visits Hell and a Deal is Struck

Walpurgisnacht, the Hexennacht. The last night of April. The night of witches, when evil walks abroad.

He stood at a desolate and lonely place where there would be no interruption, no prying eyes. The air smelled metallic with freshly spilt blood; the body of a decapitated virgin kid goat lay nearby. He had no alloyed metal about him but for a thin-bladed sword of fine steel he held in his right hand: that arm was naked, his shirt sleeve rolled up to the biceps. A silver coin wrapped in paper nestled in his waistcoat pocket. Before him burned a fire of white wood.

His name was Johannes Cabal, and he was summoning a demon.

…Oarios! Almoazin! Atrios! Membrot!” The chanted names faded into the unusually still night air. Only the crackling of the fire accompanied him. “Janna! Etitnamus! Zariatnatmix…and so on.” He drew a deep breath and sighed, bored with the ritual. “A. E. A. J. A. T. M. O….”

There was hidden meaning the name he must call, the letters he must chant. That didn’t mean he had to approve or even be impressed by them. As he recited the Grand Conjuration, he thought that some magicians might have better served the world by writing crossword puzzles.

Then space distorted, and he was no longer alone.

The demon’s name was Lucifuge Rofacale. He stood a little taller than Cabal’s six feet, but the bizarre fool’s cap he wore—three flopping horns, or perhaps tentacles, ending with arrowheads—made his height vary from moment to moment. In one hand he held a bag containing, at least symbolically, the riches of the world. In the other, a golden hoop. He wore a segmented, studded leather skirt rather like a Roman solder’s. Beneath it, fur-covered legs ended in hooves. He had a fat anteater’s tail, and a silly little Hercule Poirot moustache. As is often the case with demons, Lucifuge looked like an anatomical game of Consequences.

Lo!” cried the demon. “I am here! What dost thou seek of me? Why dost thou disturb my repose? Smite me no more with that dread rod!” He looked at Cabal. “Where’s your dread rod?”

I left it at home,” replied Cabal. “Didn’t think I really needed it.”

You can’t summon me without a dread rod!” said Lucifuge, appalled.

You’re here, aren’t you?”

Well, yes, but under false pretences. You haven’t got a goatskin or two vervain crowns or two candles of virgin wax made by a virgin girl and duly blessed. Have you got the stone called Ematille?”

I don’t even know what Ematille is.”

Neither did the demon. He dropped the subject and moved on. “Four nails from the coffin of a dead child?”

Don’t be fatuous.”

Half a bottle of brandy?”

I don’t drink brandy.”

It’s not for you.”

I have a hip flask,” said Cabal, and threw it to him. The demon caught it and took a dram.

Cheers,” said Lucifuge, and threw it back. They regarded each other for a long moment. “This really is a shambles,” the demon added finally. “What did you summon me for, anyway?”

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