Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Jonathan L. Howard will likely be remembered in the world of literature for the Johannes Cabal series above anything else, adding something completely unique and surreal to the realm of books. The first novel in the series, titled Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, follows the titular character as he takes on a wager from the devil himself: sign up a hundred souls for hell within a year to save himself from damnation. With the gift of a travelling circus, some friends he raised from the dead, and his vampire brother, Johannes begins his race against the clock.
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Jonathan L. Howard takes us to Visit Satan
Stories about making deals with the devil feels as if they are older than time itself and not limited by culture, geography, or any of the other factors which divide us. Time and time again, the moral of the stories remain the same: the price of an easy road towards one’s temptation might just be everything.
However, despite the incredible amount of stories warning us not to shake Satan’s hand, it seems they do not exist in the realms of literature, where characters keep falling for the oldest trick in the book time and time again. In Jonathan L. Howard‘s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, we witness just such a case, but with one slight difference: Johannes isn’t exactly keen on living forever without a soul.
Many years ago, Johannes sold himself to the devil in a pact which netted him the forbidden secrets of necromancy, an art with no shortage of practical uses. With the time to pay up approaching fast, the brilliant scientist makes another deal with the devil: he will redeem his soul (and save himself from eternal damnation) if he can sign up one hundred people for hell within the year. In other words, he has to do the devil’s job while not being the devil himself.
To make this task slightly more feasible, Johannes is given a travelling circus to make his way around the world on his little recruiting adventure. To help him get his macabre show rolling on the road he raises a few friends from the undead and convinces his ever-trustworthy vampire brother, Horst, to come along for the adventure and give him a hand. Though he probably never gave it much thought to begin with, Johannes is about to dive into the darkest corner of himself, one which will reveal to him to evil and calculated lengths he is prepared to venture to save himself.
Dark Carnival of Tricks and Traps
While the subject matter at its core is undoubtedly quite grim, the story is very much told through the scope of dark comedy more than anything else, with the dark carnival itself taking the centre stage for pretty much the whole book. Howard has definitely put a lot of thought into fleshing it out, something which shines through in his vivid and detailed descriptions of the supernatural travelling circus, actually quite reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
There are certainly some horror elements thrown about here and there, but in my opinion they were far from being the most prominent elements in our setting. Instead, the carnival elicits a sense of morbid curiosity as to what deprivation it might venture to next, a fascination with its nebulous nature and impressive Steampunk setting.
Well, if I ever suffer brain damage I know there’s always a career waiting for me in local politics.― Jonathan L. Howard, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
As you may have expected, the meat of the story consists of following Johannes as he travels around the world over the course of the year and witnessing the various tactics he employs to get people to sign their souls over to the devil. The types of people he signs up as well as all the tricks and strategies he employs certainly prevent the plot of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer from ever becoming boring, always offering some new and interesting events to distract us.
While some of the souls he collects are damned either way, I found it most interesting to see how he managed to trick the innocent ones into signing their lives away; there is certainly no shortage of wit or cleverness in Johannes’ methods.
The Lines Johannes Steps Over
Plot-wise, there is definitely enough happening to allow the reader to make it through the entire novel without having to dive into any particularly deep thoughts. The action is always driving forward, and those who prefer to keep their readings on a surface level will find it quite easy to do here. With this being said, there is a whole lot of food for thought for those who enjoy digging beneath the surface.
Namely, I found the theme of personal survival to be quite prevalent from start to finish, Johanne’s actions constantly pushing us to ask ourselves just how far we would go in damning others to save either ourselves or someone we love.
How deeply is survival instinct ingrained in our genetics?
Is it something we can realistically hope to control?
Is it inherently evil and amoral for one to work towards their survival at all cost?
What it would it take for you to make this sort of deal?
From my perspective, many of the reflections I was pushed to have hovered around the everlasting conflict between good, evil, moral and amoral.
It also helps Johannes himself is probably the perfect protagonist to find himself in this sort of scenario to study it from the unseemly side. Few people are colder and more calculated than him, being somewhat reminiscent of a morally-bankrupt Sherlock Holmes seeking to achieve results, even if they do require sacrifice.
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With this being said, this is Johanne’s first outing and he definitely lands himself to further character development; towards the end we learn the relatively surprising truth about the motivation behind his necromantic pursuits, creating the first ounce of sympathy for him which might be developed in the future.
The Final Verdict
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard is an intriguing start to an excellent series, presenting a rather unique steampunk story full of wit, wonder, and food for personal meditation. The setting, the characters and the plot are all woven together in a rare way which makes the novel a bit more than the sum of its parts. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys dark and morbid comedy in the realms of fantasy.
Everybody comes to the fair to have a good time in the full expectation of being ripped off at some point.― Jonathan L. Howard, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
Jonathan L. Howard
Jonathan L. Howard is a British game designer and writer whose body of work includes writing the Broken Sword game series, The Russalka Chronicles series, and most prominently, the Johannes Cabal series with novels such as Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Johannes Cabal the Detective. He has also penned a number of short fiction works, including Exeunt Demon King, The Death of Me and A Long Spoon.