Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is the first of a series of supernatural adventures written by Jonathan L. Howard. It is also a mordant buffet of sarcastic wit, of biting badinage and persiflage. Johannes Cabal is the smartest man in the room and he lets everyone know it.
Johannes Cabal made a deal with the Devil to further his research and then had the nerve to complain about the terms. He goes to Hell, jumping the line and earning the enmity of Satan’s gatekeeper Arthur Trubshaw, a former bank clerk whose request for a receipt from some bandits ended his mortal life. From this first encounter, readers know they are in for a treat.
Sartre said that Hell was other people. It transpires that one of the other people was Trubshaw. He had lived a life of bureaucratic exactitude as a clerk out in a dusty bank in a dusty own in the dusty Old West. He crossed all the “t”s and dotted all the “i”s. Then he made double entries of his double entires, filed the crossed “t”s, cross-referenced the dotted “i”s in a tabulated form against the dotted “j”s, barred any zeroes for reasons of disambiguation, and shaded in the relative frequencies on a pie chart he was maintaining.
The Devil gives Johannes Cabal his due–the opportunity to cancel his contract and get back his soul–if he can get one hundred people to sign a contract for their souls within one year. To help Cabal with his efforts, he gives him a budget of Satanic ectoplasm and a carnival, the Carnival of Discord. Staffing his carnival are a Dumb and Dumber duo of zombies, several animated creations made of “a rag, a bone and a hank of hair” along with a bit of ectoplasm and some escapees from an asylum for the criminally insane. With Johannes and his undead brother Horst at the helm, the carnival travels the rails of a steampunk pastoral world of villages and small towns gathering souls through fair means or foul.
There is a lot of magic thrown about in this book, raising the dead, transportation, transmutation and the odd card trick or two, but the real magic is the glimmers of humanity that slip through despite the best efforts of the determinedly amoral and rational Johannes. Somewhere there is a human being whose soul still remains intact if only he would pay attention.
Horst, his brother, is the conscience of the story, hoping he can keep his brother from capturing any souls for the Devil that he would not have gotten anyway. He has all the charm and charisma that Johannes lacks and brings a moral counterpoint to the story.
The story can be hilarious. One example was the scene where Cabal was set upon by the Dumb and Dumber thieves whose comeuppance was surprisingly and amusingly achieved without magic. However, that was less amusing the second time it happened and revealed a weakness with plotting that I hope will be improved in future adventures.
I enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer very much. I love word play and the precision of the perfectly chosen word. I would have enjoyed it more, though, if the story had laid a foundation for the ending when we discover there was another reason for that deal with the Devil. As it was, it came out of the blue, setting a stage for a second volume of adventures, but with no foreshadowing it felt false and manipulative. But that is the last two pages at the end of a funny, picaresque adventure across the borderlines of reality and morality that kept me engaged from the beginning.