(This review first appeared on StaticMulitmedia.com on September 8, 2009)
Somebody call Tim Burton and Johnny Depp so they can make this into a movie, please. Jonathan L. Howard’s excellent skills as a writer and diabolical sense of humor puts this book into a category by itself: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
After selling his soul to become a necromancer, Johannes Cabal discovers that the missing ingredient to success in raising the dead is…his soul. Faced with the ultimate Catch 22 and an obsessive ambition doomed to failure, he enters into a wager with Satan to get his soul back: within a year’s time, he must persuade one hundred people to sign over their own souls to the devil. If he fails, Johannes loses his life.
Satan, bored and eager to have as much entertainment as possible at the necromancer’s expense, insists that the venue for accomplishing his task must be a traveling circus. Johannes, more at home in dank cellars pouring over arcane manuscripts, knows he lacks the suave manners and showmanship needed to head such an enterprise and so calls upon his charismatic brother, Horst. In spite of, or because of, the little incident that turned him into a vampire (for which Johannes happens to be largely responsible), Horst agrees to play his part in making the dark carnival a success. Together, the brothers and their strange crew of supernatural carnies journey through the English countryside, with evil intentions and often less-than-diabolical results. Waylaid by the Dark Lord’s minions, rival carnival crews, prison escapees and inept necromancer wannabes, the brothers’ time ticks away and Johannes moves ever closer to paying the devil his due.
Tongue in cheek from the start, Howard calls upon literary traditions to underpin the story’s humor and give the reader a wickedly good time. “Chapter 1 • In Which A Scientist Visits Hell And A Deal Is Struck” finds Johannes calling up a demon to take him down to Hell:
”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 is your dread rod?”
“I left it at home,” replied Cabal. “Didn’t really think I needed it.”
Hell, when he gets to its gates, is guarded not by a terrifying hoard of beasts, but a damned (literally) paper-pushing bank clerk who delights in red tape as much as Satan’s “handpicked team of administrator imps” who “didn’t like errors at all, nor did they issue erasers.” Later, a list of prison escapees provides more chuckles than most late-night monologues as it warns officers against the likes of “Henry George Heatherbridge—‘The Brides in the Inflammable Electrified Acid Bath Murderer.’ Limited threat. Kills only for insurance money. Is prone to overplanning.”
Under the rich coating of humor, the reunion of the Cabal brothers forms the meat of this tale. Soul searching occupies them on two levels: Johannes superficial gathering of signatures on his 100-sheet stack of pacts with Satan and Horst’s deeper investigation into his brother’s character and motives. Not that the sibling angst and desire for resolution puts a soap opera damper on the fun or stalls in any way the delightfully bizarre and twisted plot. Horst’s hopes to save his brother from his own devices, fleshes out the main characters and provides the bittersweet truths that lurk behind all intelligent comedies.
Johannes Cabal The Necromancer is an intelligent, exceptionally entertaining novel and a good bet to top the short list of this year’s must reads.